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.

Language structure: You’re born with it — ScienceDaily

More evidence that we are not born blank slates, and that language is probably very ancient, developing over hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years.

Humans are unique in their ability to acquire language. But how? A new study shows that we are in fact born with the basic fundamental knowledge of language, thus shedding light on the age-old linguistic ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate.

via Language structure: You’re born with it — ScienceDaily.