steven_pinker

Photographer: Henry Leutwyler

Welcome to CWiA’s first of the 2015 Guest Speaker Series in which I let the true thought leaders of our time do the talking. My own knowledge of the English language and the art of writing it well has been learnt from people like today’s guest, Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist.

In this post, I’ve chosen an article he wrote in 2014 that answers the ten burning questions so many of us, especially my own copywriting and editing students, ask in every class I deliver. Much of what Pinker says is what I have been saying for years, and I feel relieved to have such an eminent thinker back me up. But his answers about dangling modifiers and modifying absolute adjectives has had me revising some of my own editing class notes.

Below the line is an edited version of his article in The Guardian (15th August, 2014)¹, which itself is a 5300 word sampler from his mould-breaking style guide for modern writers, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Allen Lane, 2014)². This book offers a scientific and psychologically based argument on why so much of today’s academic and popular writing is difficult for readers to understand, making it one style guide I highly recommend to all who are serious about good contemporary writing. My aim was to abridge his article to a quicker (bloggier) read of 1000 words, but I could only get it down to 2000 in order to preserve Pinker’s pull-no-punches personality and writing style. By the end of it, I guarantee you’ll feel a whole lot better.

So make yourself a nice cup of tea, coffee or chai, and settle in for a mind-freeing read by one of the world’s most influential intellectuals and a leading thinker in the art and science of everyday writing.


Among the many challenges of writing is the choice between two radically different approaches: prescriptivists 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 believe language is an organic product of human creativity and people should be allowed to write however they please.

It’s a catchy dichotomy, but a false one.

Many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries. A rule should be rejected if the answer to any of the following questions is “Yes.”

•    Is the rule based on some crackpot theory, such as that English should emulate Latin, or that the original meaning of a word is the only correct one?
•    Is it instantly refuted by the facts of English, such as the decree that nouns may not be converted into verbs?
•    Did it originate with the pet peeve of a self-anointed maven?
•    Has it been routinely flouted by great writers?
•    Is it based on a misdiagnosis of a legitimate problem, such as declaring that a construction that is sometimes ambiguous is always ungrammatical?
•    Do attempts to fix a sentence so that it obeys the rule only make it clumsier and less clear?
•    Does the putative rule confuse grammar with formality?

What follow are 10 common issues of grammar selected from those that repeatedly turn up in style guides, pet-peeve lists, newspaper language columns and irate letters to the editor.

1. and, because, but, or, so, also

There is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction. “And”, “but” and “so” are indispensable in linking individual sentences into a coherent passage, and they may be used to begin a sentence whenever the clauses being connected are too long or complicated to fit comfortably into a single megasentence. The conjunction “because” can also happily sit at the beginning of a sentence. Most commonly it ends up there when it introduces an explanation that has been preposed [sic] in front of a main clause, as in: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” But it can also kick off a single clause when the clause serves as the answer to a why question: “‘Why can’t I have a pony?’ ‘Because I said so.'”

2. dangling modifiers

Do you see a problem with the sentences that follow?

“Checking into the hotel, it was nice to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.”

“Turning the corner, the view was quite different.”

“In order to contain the epidemic, the area was sealed off.”

According to an old rule about “dangling modifiers”, these sentences are ungrammatical. Most copy editors would recast the main clause, supplying it with a subject to which the modifier can be properly fastened:

“Checking into the hotel, I was pleased to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.”

“Turning the corner, I saw that the view was quite different.”

“In order to contain the epidemic, authorities sealed off the area.”

Some dangling modifiers should be avoided, but they are not grammatical errors. The problem with dangling modifiers is that their subjects are inherently ambiguous and sometimes a sentence will inadvertently attract a reader to the wrong choice, as in “When a small boy, a girl is of little interest.”

But some so-called danglers are perfectly acceptable. Many participles have turned into prepositions, such as “according”, “allowing”, “concerning”, “considering”, “excepting”, “following”, “given”, “granted”, “owing”, “regarding” and “respecting”, and they don’t need subjects at all. Inserting “we find” or “we see” into the main clause to avoid a dangler can make the sentence stuffy and self-conscious.

More generally, a modifier can dangle when its implied subject is the writer and the reader. The decision of whether to recast a sentence to align its subject with the subject of a modifier is a matter of judgment, not grammar.

3. like, as, such as

Long ago, in the Mad Men era when cigarettes were advertised on radio and television, every brand had a slogan. And most infamously, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should”, said the accusers, should have been “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.”

Like many usage controversies, the brouhaha over “like a cigarette should” is a product of grammatical ineptitude and historical ignorance. The ad’s use of “like” with a clause was not a recent corruption; the combination has been in use for 600 years. Writers are free to use either “like” or “as”, mindful only that “as” is a bit more formal.

A related superstition, ruthlessly enforced by many copy editors, is that “like” may not be used to introduce examples, as in “Many technical terms have become familiar to laypeople, like ‘cloning’ and ‘DNA’.” Few writers consistently follow this bogus rule. “Such as” is more formal than “like”, but both are legitimate.

4. preposition at the end of a sentence

There is nothing, repeat nothing, wrong with “Who are you looking at?” or “The better to see you with” or “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” or “It’s you she’s thinking of”. The pseudo-rule was invented by John Dryden based on a silly analogy with Latin (where the equivalent to a preposition is attached to the noun and cannot be separated from it) in an effort to show that Ben Jonson was an inferior poet. As the linguist Mark Liberman remarked, “It’s a shame that Jonson had been dead for 35 years at the time, since he would otherwise have challenged Dryden to a duel, and saved subsequent generations a lot of grief.”

The [only] problem with stranding a preposition is that it can end the sentence with a word that is too lightweight to serve as its focal point, making the sentence sound like “the last sputter of an engine going dead”.

5. predicative nominative

When you come home after a day at the office, do you call out, “Hi, honey, it’s I”?

If you do, you are the victim of a schoolteacher rule that insists that a pronoun serving as the complement of “be” must be in nominative case (I, he, she, we, they) rather than accusative case (me, him, her, us, them).

The rule is a product of the usual three confusions: English with Latin, informal style with incorrect grammar and syntax with semantics. Accusative predicates have been used for centuries by many respected writers (including Samuel Pepys, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf), and the choice between “It is he” and “It is him” is strictly one of formal versus informal style.

6. split infinitives

The very terms “split infinitive” and “split verb” are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, “to love”. But in English, the so-called infinitive “to write” consists of two words, not one: the subordinator “to” and the plain form of the verb “write”, which can also appear without “to” in constructions such as “She helped him pack” and “You must be brave.”

There is not the slightest reason to interdict an adverb from the position before the main verb, and great writers in English have placed it there for centuries. Indeed, the spot in front of the main verb is often the most natural resting place for an adverb, and sometimes it is the only resting place.

Unsplitting the infinitive in the New Yorker cartoon caption “I’m moving to France to not get fat” (yielding “I’m moving to France not to get fat”) would garble the meaning, and doing so with “Profits are expected to more than double this year,” would result in gibberish: “Profits are expected more than to double this year.”

7. that and which

Before you know it, a rule of thumb morphs into a rule of grammar. According to the traditional rule, the choice depends on which of two kinds of relative clause the word is introducing. A nonrestrictive relative clause is set off by commas, dashes or parentheses, as in “The pair of shoes, which cost five thousand dollars, was hideous.”

One part of the rule is correct: it’s odd to use “that” with a nonrestrictive relative clause, as in “The pair of shoes, that cost £5,000, was hideous.” So odd, in fact, that few people write that way, rule or no rule.

The other part of the rule is utterly incorrect. There is nothing wrong with using “which” to introduce a restrictive relative clause, as in “The pair of shoes which cost £5,000 was hideous.” Indeed, with some restrictive relatives, “which” is the only option, such as “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “The book in which I scribbled my notes is worthless.”

So what’s a writer to do? The real decision is not whether to use “that” or “which” but whether to use a restrictive or a nonrestrictive relative clause. Having done so, you don’t have to worry about whether to use “that” or “which”, because if you’re tempted to use “that” it means that your ear for the English language is so mistuned that the choice of “that” and “which” is the least of your worries.

As for the choice you now face between “which” and “that”: if you hate making decisions, you won’t go wrong if you use “that”.

8. who and whom

Only the stuffiest prig would say, “It’s not what you know; it’s whom you know”.

The declining fortunes of “whom” may represent not a grammatical change in English but a cultural change in Anglophones, namely the informalisation of writing, which makes it increasingly resemble speech. Though “whom” is pompous in short questions and relative clauses, it is a natural choice in certain other circumstances, even in informal speech and writing. We still use “whom” in double questions like “Who’s dating whom?”, and in fixed expressions like “To whom it may concern” and “With whom do you wish to speak?”.

The best advice to writers is to calibrate their use of “whom” to the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality they desire.

9. very unique

Great writers have been modifying absolute adjectives for centuries, including the framers of the American Constitution, who sought “a more perfect union”. Though the phrase “very unique” is universally despised, other modifications of “unique” are unobjectionable, as when Martin Luther King wrote, “I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers.”

Here is the flaw in the purists’ logic. Uniqueness is not like pregnancy and marriage; it must be defined relative to some scale of measurement. Calling something “quite unique” or “very unique” implies that the item differs from the others in an unusual number of qualities, that it differs from them to an unusual degree, or both. This doesn’t mean that you should go ahead and use “very unique”. “Very” is a soggy modifier in the best of circumstances, and the combination with “unique” grates on enough readers that it’s wise to avoid it.

10. count nouns, mass nouns and “ten items or less”

We can talk about “many pebbles” but not “much pebbles” [count noun] “much gravel” but not “many gravel” [mass noun]. Some quantifiers are not choosy: we can talk about “more pebbles” or “more gravel”.

Now, you might think that if “more” can be used with both count and mass nouns, so can “less”. But it doesn’t work that way: you may have “less gravel”, but you can only have “fewer pebbles”, not “less pebbles”. This is a reasonable distinction, but purists have extended it with a vengeance. The sign over supermarket express checkout lanes, “Ten Items or Less”, is a grammatical error, they say. By this logic, law-abiding motorists should drive at “fewer than 70 miles an hour”.

“Less” is perfectly natural with a singular count noun, as in “one less car” and “one less thing to worry about”. It’s also natural when the entity being quantified is a continuous extent and the count noun refers to units of measurement, such as “70 miles an hour”. And “less” is idiomatic in certain expressions in which a quantity is being compared to a standard, such as, “Describe yourself in 50 words or less.”

Like many dubious rules of usage, the less-fewer distinction has a smidgen of validity as a pointer of style. In cases where “less” and “fewer” are both available, such as “Less/fewer than 20 of the students voted”, “fewer” is the better choice because it enhances vividness and concreteness. But that does not mean that “less” is a grammatical error.

 

¹ Ten Grammar Rules it’s OK to Break (Sometimes); The Guardian (15th August, 2014).

² The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Allen Lane, 2014).

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