I listened to this Point of Inquiry podcast at lunch today, and thought many of you might find it interesting: Steven Pinker: Using Grammar as a Tool, Not as a Weapon | Point of Inquiry.
The English language is often treated as delicate and precious, and disagreements about what is “proper English” go back as far as the 18th century. Then as now, style manuals and grammar books placed innumerable restrictions on what is and isn’t “correct,” as “Language Mavens” continue to delight in pointing out the unforgivable errors of others. To bring some fresh perspective to this remarkably heated topic (and to let some of us who are less than perfect, grammatically speaking, off the hook), Point of Inquiry welcomes Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of the new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.
Among the things discussed is the singular “they” (it’s fine), ending a sentence with a preposition (also fine), or that passive tense isn’t always bad. Pinker comes down on the side of grammar being a tool, not a strict authoritarian regime. He notes that there is no “official” English, just lots of people using language, and people like him (he’s the chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage dictionary) examining that usage and recording it in dictionaries and style manuals, and that language evolves constantly.
I’ve never been a strict grammarian myself (as some of you have noticed in the past). As I admitted to someone earlier this week, I’m pretty dependent on modern text editors for saving me from a host of grammatical sins. (The WordPress editor just saved me from one in the prior sentence.) And I usually only notice grammar violations in someone else’s writing if it obscures their meaning. In my view, clear writing with an occasional grammatical mistake or oddity is superior to grammatically perfect but unclear writing. So Pinker’s position resonates well with me.