A “mischievious” grammar: an encounter with the linguist Steven Pinker

There’s simply no reason to think that language (or society) is crumbling at all, says Pinker.

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Steven Pinker is out and proud. He had long hidden his predilection but in his latest book, The Sense of Style, he lets it pour out on to the pages: he has started splitting infinitives. “For many years I avoided it: not because I thought there was anything wrong with it, but because I thought there was a large enough audience who see it as an error. But I’ve decided to come out of the closet, to help overcome this stupid prejudice,” he says.

After I meet him, in a central London hotel, I look through his book and find a split infinitive, when he criticises style guides that tend “to mindlessly reproduce” the made-up rules of earlier books.

Some people get extraordinarily angry about this sort of thing. If you’re not one of those people, the infinitive is the form of the verb that uses “to”, as in “to reproduce”. According to folklore, “to” should never be separated from its verb by a modifier, such as “mindlessly”. But this is nonsense, a shibboleth invented in the late 18th century.

When people think of grammar and language, this sort of proclamation is too often what comes to mind: the wails of tweedy old men who think that the language is crumbling. Pinker – the author of groundbreaking works on language and consciousness and someone who therefore ought to know – insists that English is not deteriorating, though every generation thinks it is. “Psychologists sometimes call it the ‘illusion of the golden age’,” he says.

Pinker points out that this attitude applies to more than just language. “You see commentator after commentator pronounce on how much more violent the world has become,” even though the numbers show that humans live safer lives than we ever have. And this, he says, is because of a larger problem with our public debate: the attitude that if you’re a clever, erudite person with an opinion and a platform, that gives you authority to sound off on any topic, without seeing if the facts support your assertion. “But you’re actually not entitled to an opinion, until you go to the books and look at the numbers.”

In the specific case of language, he says grammar pedants fear that: “It’s the loose thread in a wider fabric. It’ll start with grammar and society will deteriorate from there – a broken windows theory of language.” First, people start using “disinterested” to mean “uninterested”: next, they’re looting department stores.

But there’s simply no reason to think that language (or society) is crumbling at all, says Pinker. He recounts that one angry pedant, Dwight Macdonald, wrote in the 1960s that dictionaries’ method of describing how the language is used, rather than prescribing how it “should” be used, would lead to such anarchy that, by 1988, “nucular” and “mischievious” would be in the dictionary instead of “nuclear” and “mischievous”. “Here we are, 25 years beyond 1988, and it hasn’t happened,” Pinker points out.

Plenty of scientific linguists have debunked the sillier rules espoused by language pedants – those proscribing split infinitives, ending a sentence on a preposition, and so on. But Pinker wants to go beyond that, “to offer guidance, based in evidence from actual use of language, for how people can improve their prose without recycling these superstitions”. Correct grammar is important, he says, as is establishing what really is correct, by looking at how people use the language. But it’s more important to think of what’s clear and stylish.

He gives the example of the word “disinterested”. Purists get furious when it’s used to mean “bored”. “One of the reasons I like ‘disinterested’ is that it carries its meaning in its construction. It means ‘without interest’ in the sense of vested interest, so it’s ever so slightly different from the near-synonym ‘impartial’. You’re not just committed to fairness, but you have no stake in the issue. It’s lovely to have that distinction conveyed by the very structure of the word,” he says. It doesn’t matter that the word has a second meaning: the two have coexisted for centuries and the “bored” meaning was used first. Still, Pinker sees a joy and value of being aware of nuances of meaning and of “encouraging a certain attitude toward language, appreciating it as an object of beautiful complexity”.

Pinker knows he will anger those readers who cling to half-remembered rules from school. But it’s a deliberate choice. “I’m splitting infinitives as part of a campaign: if I’m willing to do it, maybe they will rethink their pernicious prejudice against it,” he laughs. “How and when you choose to annoy your readers has to be thought out in advance.” 

Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the  21st Century” is published by Allen Lane (£20)

This article appears in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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