Steven Pinker: Using Grammar as a Tool, Not as a Weapon

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.

52 thoughts on “Steven Pinker: Using Grammar as a Tool, Not as a Weapon

  1. Pinker’s awesome. I think he said that “Ebonics” actually fulfilled the criteria for a dialect rather than language abuse, and even demonstrated some of the very expressive grammatical forms that others dismissed as errors (e.g.: “he workin'” vs. “he be workin'”).

    While I do try to maintain decent style, I think that anyone who is overly attached to style should look at English and its history, including the arbitrariness of some its rules. For instance, English has always been a filthy language (See “The Dictionary of Depraved and Insulting English”) and that whole “don’t end a sentence in a preposition” nonsense was because one couldn’t do it in Latin and some simply decided if you couldn’t do it in Latin, then you shouldn’t be able to do it in English! Way to go folks, reduce the power of the language!.


    1. That’s interesting on the Latin preposition thing. I think Pinker mentions in the podcast that the English rule came from a poet attempting to brand a rival’s work as inferior, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he used the Latin rule as justification.

      But from what I understand, English has always been something of a mongrel language, having roots in German and French. It’s also never been shy about stealing useful words from other languages.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Miss Manners (whom I adore) has said the same thing of etiquette: That it is not intended as a weapon to make people feel excluded, but as a tool to allow everyone to feel comfortable and included in any situation. The thing is, you have to have some grasp of the rules for that to work.

    Many sources have realized the absurdity of every really having a gender-neutral pronoun (I had an English teacher in HS who promised an “A” for the semester to anyone who could come up with one that didn’t sound ridiculous — no one ever did) and now recommend “they.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree. Writing that is loaded with grammatical errors is just sloppy, except perhaps in informal mediums like texting, or constrained ones like Twitter.

      There was a discussion in the podcast of pronouns for transgender, genderqueer, androgyne, or bigender people. After noting that the considerate pronoun for transgender folks is based on their chosen gender, Pinker made an excellent observation that we have to be careful not to simply set traps for accusing people not in the know of being prejudiced. There are some conservatives who purposefully use pronouns in a discriminatory fashion, but many people are just clueless.

      I use singular “they” all the time. I’ve never cared for his/her or alternating gender pronouns. The only time it gets awkward is when there might be confusion on whether it is being used in the singular or plural manner, but that can often be fixed with a little context.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Mos Def! There’s a huge difference between casual speech, casual writing (comments, text messages, etc.), more formal writing, corporate writing and professional writing. Each should be judged in terms of itself. Who among us hasn’t mangled a comment or three!

        The closing lines of your post made a connection I’d never really thought about before. As a software designer, my #1 criteria — even more important that code correctness — is clarity. Without that, nothing else really matters. I would completely agree that a similar rule applies to speech and writing!

        (Not entirely the same, though… writing is an artform and sometimes art is about beauty and emotion more than anything else, and in such cases clarity may be rightfully sacrificed for mood or feel. That’s never true for computer code!)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I actually found coding to be an art form, although in a much different way than regular language. You had to know the guidelines, but also when to violate them. For example, sometimes a forward goto was far less confusing than the alternatives, or a pointer cast clearer than doing it the strongly typed way, but you needed substantial experience to know when they made sense.


          1. True indeed, but those things aren’t art, they’re craft, skill and experience. Many conflate them, but I find they really aren’t the same thing.

            That said, as an artist there were ways I brought my artistic sensibilities into play in designing code and how that code interacted with users. Even so there isn’t really that much opportunity for the expression of art in software.


      2. I believe that language should have a realistic basis for communication.
        If you go down the street and see a person, you want to talk to him, how do you know whether to use he or she?
        For the biological characteristics between men and women. I want to clarify that when I refer to men and women I do not mean their ways of dressing or behaviors, I only refer to the possible expressions of their chromosomes (characteristics observable to the naked eye)


    2. I suppose it depends on just how much of a coding nerd you were. I used to enjoy downloading the source code of open source projects, just to appreciate the choices and styles of coding. A well crafted program evoked similar appreciation in me that mathematical constructs do in mathematicians. I often thought about what the maintenance programmer would be thinking when reading my code (fully realizing that it might be me a year or two later) and tried to be creative in communicating with variable names, comments, etc.

      Yes, I got way too much into my job back then. I think just about any endeavor can be brought to an art form if someone is vested enough in it. But I also suppose it depends on how you define “art”.


      1. Absolutely. I not only agree with every word, I’ve lived everything you just described for over four decades! But those things aren’t “art” — they’re related to love of the craft. As you said yourself, “a well-crafted program.”

        As you say, it depends on your definition of art. So what is yours? I tried to explore mine in these blog posts:


      2. (As an aside: “programming geek” is a more accurate term — a geek is an expert in some arcane craft. The term comes from carnival side shows and was applied to the “geeks” who bit the heads off chickens and such. A nerd is a socially inept person, and there is no correlation to any skill set when talking about nerds. Many geeks are nerds, but it’s a Venn diagram. 🙂 )


        1. Hmmm, is there a demarcation problem for art? I have to admit that I haven’t given my definition of art a great deal of thought. I tending to think anything produced with imagination, experience, skill, and perhaps love of the process, where it’s not currently practical to produce a recipe or algorithm to do it, would count. That’s why it makes sense to speak of the “art of war”, since even war, if done in a brilliant way, can be an art.

          I also have to admit that I generally see “nerd” and “geek” as synonyms. When I was a kid, both got beat up, although I’ll admit it seems that geek has slightly better connotations today.


          1. Basically, geeks got laid, nerds, not so much. 🙂

            Art is one of those things that’s really hard to define (but we know what we like 🙂 ). If you spend some time trying to think of all the things you think of as “art” you find that things like skill and experience are nice, but neither sufficient nor even necessary. Even love of the process is neither sufficient nor necessary, as some tortured artists hated the process (but were driven to create their art, and I think that drive is a requirement).

            Imagination and creativity seem to get closer to the mark, but even there we can find examples where those don’t quite qualify as “art.” I do think imagination and creativity are necessary, but they aren’t the complete picture.

            Certainly beauty has nothing to do with art, since some art is ugly, even grotesque. A sunset is not art.

            You make an excellent point about algorithms and recipes. There is something transcendental and very human about art. No other creature practices it (in any form we recognize).

            The ability to create art and humor may be one of the distinguishing marks of what it really means to be sentient.


        2. It seems like art is a hopelessly subjective thing. In the end, I suspect art is some crafted thing that evokes emotion in us. Many things (such as a picture of a beautiful landscape) may evoke some emotion in just about everyone, but others will likely depend on your life experiences, or particular innate tendencies.


          1. Consider an Apollo or STS launch, both of which are made things that evoke very strong emotion in me. But are they art or just awesome engineering? (I say they’re engineering, not art.)

            I think the conundrum comes, in part, from looking at it from the “audience’s” perspective where, yeah, it’s seems a highly subjective call. If you read my What Is Art? post you saw that I define art very simply as:

            What an artist does.

            Which moves the definition to the creator of the work rather than audience. After all, who better to know whether something is art than its maker?

            The definition is still very tricky, and still somewhat subjective, but I think it’s easier when you think of it in terms of the artist. (Ask yourself this: can art be created but never seen by other than its maker?)

            For me it finally boils down to this: Art is an expressive interpretation of reality created by an artist driven by their artistic soul. This seems (to me) to include everything we think of as art and to exclude things we don’t (like rocket ships and war and programming).


        3. The Apollo launch analogy is an interesting one. Believe it or not, the aesthetics of the Saturn V rockets was considered in their design. The German scientists very much wanted them to be white and black and resemble certain ideals. (They almost certainly would have hated the orange Space Shuttle tank and the orange sections of the SLS, even though foregoing the paint saves substantial weight.)

          I think an engineered creation can certainly be art, or at least artistic. There are almost always a myriad of choices for functional designs, allowing the personality of the engineers involved to show up in the those choices.

          That said, the definition of art isn’t a burning issue for me. I don’t perceive there to be a serious pseudoart problem comparable to the pseudoscience one.


          1. The Apollo launch. Yes, very good example! Would it be any less awe-inspiring if the paint job were different? Doesn’t the awe come from what it is rather than how it looks?

            Also totally agree that an artistic sensibility can be applied to engineering (and almost any kind of design). I think that actually wraps back to where we started with programming.

            Liked by 1 person

    3. Many sources have realized the absurdity of every really having a gender-neutral pronoun

      I think there is a typo here that is obscuring the meaning for me. Was “every” supposed to be “ever”? If so, why would such a thing be absurd? I can see unlikely; but absurd, I don’t get.

      I regularly find myself wishing that English had a third person gender-neutral singular pronoun.

      Using “they” for both singular and plural introduces needless ambiguity – now when we use the word, it becomes less clear which is meant (in either case). Patriarchal implications aside, using “he” as gender-neutral singular is a bad idea for the same reason (introducing ambiguity, i.e. does one mean male, or gender-neutral?). Personally, I find alternating between he and she distracting. The other non-they workarounds (he/she, “one”, rephrasing to avoid) are a bit awkward, but I generally find them to be the lesser of evils (distractions), and so I prefer them among the currently-available alternatives.

      IMO, it’s unfortunate that the suggestions I’ve heard for new pronouns seem strange and awkward, and it’s a bummer that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near a critical mass of people both agreeing with me, and caring enough about it, to effect such a change.


      1. (Yes, the “y” in “every” was a typo.) In enumerating the difficulties, you’ve answered the very question you asked. People have been chewing on this at least since the Second Wave of Feminism in the 1960s, and in that half century, we’re no closer than we ever were. Given all the other neologisms that have cropped up in that same time span, doesn’t it seem an absurdity to think we’ll solve it any time soon?

        (That English teacher I mentioned who offered an “A”… that was back in 1972!)


        1. Thanks for your reply.

          Many sources have realized the absurdity of [ever] really having a gender-neutral pronoun

          …why would such a thing be absurd? I can see unlikely; but absurd, I don’t get.

          In enumerating the difficulties, you’ve answered the very question you asked.

          I stand by my statement, though. I don’t see how any of the definitions on the page you linked apply to this situation. Saying that having third person gender-neutral pronouns would be “absurd” seems to me to say that there’s something inherently nonsensical about the very idea of it…for no reason I can figure. The fact that the proposed implementations have been awkward doesn’t mean the base proposition is flawed.

          I think most people just don’t care as much about clear and precise communication as I apparently do. If they did, we could make this change to the language.


          1. Damn! You’re onto us; I guess there’s just no fooling you with our attempts at unclear and imprecise language.

            Hey, guys! We gotta hang it up; ratamacue-zero has figured it out. Everyone scatter!!


          2. That and your assertion this is related to other people’s lack of desire for clarity. The implication is that, somehow, several hundred years of English literature is unclear, and I’m pretty sure isn’t the case. 🙂


          3. Clarity isn’t binary.

            Singular vs. plural (1 vs. many) is a customary distinction we make, usually without forcing gender assignment…

            Are you saying that singular they has been in commonly accepted use in English literature for that long? (Honest question.)

            I seem to have an unusually strong desire for precision in communication.* Sometimes it comes in handy. Other times, people probably find my pedantry annoying.

            • Please don’t take that as an assertion of the extent of the clarity of my own communication. I try, though.


          4. “Saying that having third person gender-neutral pronouns would be “absurd” seems to me to say that there’s something inherently nonsensical about the very idea of it…”

            I think the problem here stems from a misconception. There is nothing “inherently nonsensical” about the idea of a third-person gender-neutral pronoun. What I find absurd is that we’ll ever actually find a word that isn’t jarring or dissonant.

            No one has ever found a workable word in the 50-some years we’ve been seeking one, yet in that same time we’ve coined many, many neologisms.

            I find that difference compelling.

            Further, this isn’t (to me) at all an issue of clarity, it’s an issue of gender politics and society’s inclusiveness and egalitarianism. The use of “he” as the third-person pronoun isn’t unclear — I doubt anyone has been confused by it, rather they feel excluded by it — but it is a (particularly thorny) gender-social issue.


          5. Thanks for clarifying. That makes more sense, and you might be right about the absurdity.

            Any thoughts on why the words have always struck us as jarring or dissonant?

            Of course, I do agree that “it’s [also] an issue of gender politics and society’s inclusiveness and egalitarianism”. I just don’t see it as exclusively that.

            The use of “he” as the third-person pronoun isn’t unclear

            I assume you meant gender-neutral/unknown here. I wouldn’t say it’s always “unclear” per se. I would say it’s less clear than if we had a word to mean actually that, and then it opens up the question of whether one means to specify gender in other instances of using the word. I can understand the argument that it’s “easy enough” to figure things out from context, though I don’t agree that’s universally the case.

            But to me it seems you’re implying that even if we had a non-jarring, third person singular, gender-neutral pronoun, it would be nigh-useless, as the current alternatives (or at least singular they) are just as good, with literally no loss of precision. I don’t think I’ve done it yet, at least not well, but I think this could be logically shown to be false.


          6. “Any thoughts on why the words have always struck us as jarring or dissonant?”

            I suspect part of it is fighting hundreds of years of inertia. Coining a new word to fill a new need is easier than trying to revamp long-time existing usage, especially when the desired change is agenda-based and the need itself is questionable.

            “I wouldn’t say it’s always ‘unclear’ per se.”

            Your argument would have more weight if you provided examples that you find unclear.

            “But to me it seems you’re implying…”

            No, I’m not implying anything other than what I have said explicitly.


          7. Your argument would have more weight if you provided examples that you find unclear.

            Good point.

            …I listened to the podcast. Pinker gave an explanation for singular they which I hadn’t heard before. I don’t grok it yet, and I think it would behoove me to get a better understanding, and potentially refine or revise my ideas on the subject. So between that and other busy-ness, I hope you won’t mind if I table this for now.

            Special thanks to you (Wyrd Smythe), SAP, and Tina (rung2diotimasladder) for your input to me here.

            Liked by 2 people

          8. Hey SAP,

            Thanks for pointing those things out. I’ll have to actually listen to the podcast! (Didn’t realize I was actually close enough to being on-topic…)

            The Webster video was interesting. I find it curious though that her example at the end suggesting we just stick with “singular they” still seems plural to me:

            Everyone should just do their best in the situations they find themselves in.

            If it were singular, wouldn’t it use “themself” instead of “themselves”? Mind you, as I compose this comment, the dictionary is indicating that “themself” is not a word.

            …evolution of language and stuff…

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, prescriptive vs descriptive grammarians. In theory, I tend toward Pinker’s descriptive side – the point is not to “follow the rules” but to use language effectively as an everyday tool. Rules are there to explain actual usage, not to limit it. In practice, I’m more mixed. When I taught English, I taught students how to use proper, rule-bound English, in the hopes that a good command of standard English would improve their prospects in life. I was not, in that context, willing to sacrifice their interest to my more “democratic” theoretical preference for descriptive grammar. (And even theoretically, learning and following clear rules does facilitate the logical clarity of more sustained and nuanced speech acts like philosophy books.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent point. Students still need to learn the conventional rules. As I said above, you need to understand the conventions to know when to violate them. Although hopefully we can spare students from some rules, like the dangling preposition one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Not ending a sentence with a preposition is a bit of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

        ^ One of many variations of a common quote, (probably mis)attributed to Winston Churchill.

        IIRC, I did a little searching on the question of dangling prepositions recently, and found pretty widespread agreement that this one was always an overly-prescriptivist, unhelpful, (perhaps not-even-a-) rule.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I will always applaud anyone who sees language as a fluidly living set of rules of vocabulary, and frown when someone insists on seemingly arbitrary rules. The only reason to follow the “rules” is to increase clarity. I prefer active voice from my students because passive voice lets them hide the agent the point where there is no agent (basically, if I can toss a “by zombies” at the end of a sentence, it means I have no idea who they’re referring to). As long as I can easily figure out what an author is trying to say, rules mean very little to me.


  5. I’m a little bit of a grammar Nazi, but I don’t like the idea of following rules simply because they are rules. The preposition one is a good example of a rule that begs to be broken. “Their” is something I discussed in a blog post and I don’t like it for that bit of ambiguity, but given that people use it in speech, it seems likely to become the rule, even accepted in formal writing at some point. As you said, even that bit of ambiguity can be clarified from the context in most cases, and it solves so many problems with just a small sacrifice in meaning occasionally, so why not use it?

    Here in Oklahoma people say, “Him and I went to the store…” and that drives me crazy. My friends here know this is improper tell me they never noticed it until I pointed it out. But it’s everywhere here, and not an indication of someone who’s uneducated. The meaning of the sentence is clear enough, but it still takes every ounce of effort to stop myself from correcting people. I don’t know anything about programming, but I imagine it might irk you to see something clumsily coded. This is how I feel about such mistakes. It’s ugly. It’s an aesthetic offense. But other rule breaks (Y’all, for instance) make me very happy and strike me as clever and elegant. (Imagine that—y’all as elegant).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you like “y’all”, you’d love conversing with people where I live (south Louisiana).

      Thinking about coding, I was very fascist about how things should be done when I was a young programmer. As I got older, I discovered that most good programmers are like that, except that they disagree about what to be fascist about. (It’s also interesting that people in general are more intolerant of these things when they are younger.)

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree with your first paragraph, up until the “why not?”. 😉

      Can you give a link to your post where you discussed it?

      Here in Oklahoma people say, “Him and I went to the store…” and that drives me crazy.

      In my area, I don’t hear that often, but using the wrong first person pronoun as part of a compound subject or object is pretty common. Like “me and John went to the store.” Or something something “…for her and I.” Probably more so the later.

      I agree, it’s pretty grating, but I also rarely try to correct people anymore. For those who don’t get offended, even after I’ve (nicely) explained “the trick” to figure out “by sound” which is correct, it doesn’t seem to stick.

      For reference, if any readers are unfamiliar, the trick is simply to replace the compound subject or object with only the pronoun, to see which sounds right. i.e. You (hopefully) wouldn’t say, “Him went to the store…” Or “The gift is for I.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, I have a friend who says “Him and I” all the time. One day I decided to bring up this issue in a sly way by pointing out that I had been hearing it a lot in OK. I explained everything to her in great detail without pointing out that she had just said it, hoping she would take the hint. She laughed and said she hadn’t noticed it, then continued to say “Him and I” a million times in that very conversation…what can you do?

        In retrospect I’m sort of embarrassed that I did this and glad she didn’t catch on. On the other hand, If I made a mistake I’d want my friends to teach me. It’s hard to know what to do.

        Here’s the link:

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for your story and link. I made some comments there. 🙂

    If I made a mistake I’d want my friends to teach me.

    I feel the same way, personally, and I wish that were the majority perspective, but I suspect it’s not. I wish we could all just help each other improve, without so much ego getting in the way.

    It’s hard to know what to do.

    Yes, some people get touchy about being corrected, especially when it doesn’t come easily to them, so I agree, it’s hard to know. And to my wish above, perhaps I’d differently if I had a harder time with grammar, etc.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.