04 May 2015

Snippets from Pinker on style, Ch6, part I

More snippets from Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Chapter 6: Telling right from wrong. How to make sense of the rules of correct grammar, word choice, and punctuation.


p188: The goal of this chapter is to allow you to reason your way to avoiding the major errors of correct grammar, word choice, and punctuation.... purists, also known as sticklers, pedants, snobs, snoots, nit-pickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis, and the Gotcha Gang.

p189: (Following definitions of the terms Prescriptivist and Descriptivist) (my bold)
The Descriptivists had their way with the publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961.
This created a backlash that led to Prescriptivist dictionaries such as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
What's wrong with this fairy tale?
As the chair of the Usage Panel of the famously prescriptivist American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), I am here to tell you that this assumption is false.
When I asked the editor of the dictionary how he and his colleagues decide what goes into it, he replied: "We pay attention to the way people use language".
That's right: when it comes to correct English, there's no one in charge, the lunatics are running the asylum.

p190: ... the rules of usage are tacit conventions.

p192: ... I am ... a descriptive linguist ...
But the book you are holding is avowedly prescriptivist.

p193: The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal of lexicographers but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors.

p194: Although lexicographers have neither  the desire nor the power to prevent linguistic conventions from changing, this does not mean, as purists fear, that they cannot state the conventions in force at a given time. That is the rationale behind the American Heritage Dictionary's Usage Panel ...

p195: And now we come to the most bogus controversy of all. The fact that many prescriptivist rules are worth keeping does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered less from Miss Thistlebottom's classroom is worth keeping.
Phony rules, which proliferate like urban legends and are just as hard to eradicate, are responsible for vast amounts of ham-fisted copyediting and smarty-pants one-upmanship.

p197: ... reasons to obey some prescriptivist rules ...
One is to provde grounds for confidence that the writer has a history of reading edited English and has given it (the text) his full attention.
Another is to enforce grammatical consistency ...
Still another reason to care about usage is to ratify a certain attitude to language.

p198: This raises the question of how a careful writer can distingusi a legitimate rule of usage from a grandmother's tale. The answer is unbelievably simple: look it up. Consult a modern dictionary with usage notes such as Merriam-Webster's Unabridged, the American Heritage Dictionary ...
[And, I would add, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, or NODE, edited by Judy Pearsall and published in 2001. After Webster's Third New International Dictionary, this is my personal favorite, but, to my immense disappointment, it proved a commercial failure and has not been updated. Amazon link for second-hand copies here.] [The NODE blurb reads: This dictionary focuses on contemporary English as it is really used, informed by currently available evidence and the latest research. The dictionary places the most frequently used meanings of each word first, followed by secondary and technical senses, slang, idioms, and historical and obsolete senses. There are over 500 boxed usage notes, giving guidance on all aspects of the language and backed up by extensive analysis of the evidence. Featuring 350,000 words, phrases, and definitions, this dictionary offers comprehensive coverage of English as it is actually used in the 21st century.]

.. reference works, with their careful attention to history, literature, and actual usage, are the most adamant debunkers of grammatical nonsense (This is much less true of style sheets drawn up by newspapers and professional societies ...

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