Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.


After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.


Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.