Steven Pinker: 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes)

Steven Pinker: 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes)
You shudder at a split infinitive, know when to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ and would never confuse ‘less’ with ‘fewer’ – but are these rules always right, elegant or sensible, asks linguist Steven Pinker
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Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker
The Guardian, Friday 15 August 2014 22.00 AEST
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Chief Justice John Roberts had Obama ‘solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully’. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Among the many challenges of writing is dealing with rules of correct usage: whether to worry about split infinitives, fused participles, and the meanings of words such as “fortuitous”, “decimate” and “comprise”. Supposedly a writer has to choose between two radically different approaches to these rules. Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please. Continue reading

Practice Essay: formal language and social harmony

Practice Essay- Section C
Write a sustained expository response. 700-800 words

a. ‘Extra-Visibility or Emphasis on Difference: In many contexts it is quite unnecessary to mention a person’s sex, race, ethnic background or other characteristics, yet such characteristics are often mentioned even at the expense of information that would have benn more relevant to the context. This is particularly true for members of minority groups. Unnecessary references of this nature should be avoided.’
Inclusive Language Policy, University of Western Sydney
b. When people talk, they lay lines on each other, do a lot of role playing, sidestep, shilly-shally and engage in all manner of vagueness and innuendo. We do this an expect others to do it, yet at the same time we profess to long for the plain truth, for people to say what they mean, simple as that. Such hypocrisy is a human universal.’
Steven Pinker, ‘Words Don’t Mean What They Mean’, Time, 6 September 2007
c. ‘(M)odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning an inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.’
George Orwell, Politics and the English language, Horizon, April 1946
d. ‘It’s an uphill battle to get broadcasters to recognise and avoid bureaucratese, jargon, clichés and sheer pomposity. Media releases are often the source of such language but reporters who use them should weed out and replace any stilted or unidiomatic expressions that they wouldn’t normally use themselves…A politician may say, “We expect to see more ships going in and out of Sydney harbour going forward.” But journalists should be aware of how silly this cliché can make them sound, and realise that it’s redundant anyway.’
Irene Poinkin, ‘SCOSE notes’, Australian Style, April 2009

Formal language can both promote and prevent social harmony. Discuss, referring to at least two subsystems of language in your response.
This essay is a sample from Insight Publications, 2013