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Here's the thing

The reason not to worry overmuch about the way people talk or write in e-mails or other casual contexts is summed up aptly in a short passage from Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, which I have been reading in short takes at lunch for several weeks.

The aspect of language that is 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, unlike a conversational partner, 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, feedback, and—probably most important—exposure to good examples.

Editors, copy editors, mavens and scolds, focus on what’s most important.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:58 AM | | Comments (2)


My dad mentioned that you wrote about Pinker on your blog.

I'm currently reading "The Stuff of Thought" by Pinker. It concentrates mainly on semantics. There is also a significant amount of type devoted to words in culture. It's very readable, and he provides numerous examples on how a slight change in sentence structure will butcher the writer's intended message. Honestly, he has changed the way I look at words. I highly recommend it.

-Maggie Klinedinst

For a guy I disagree with so much, Pinker sure is smart. Do other interested in language acquisition have a similar love/hate relationship with the man? You have to give him credit for thorough discussion of theory in his books intended for popular consumption. But the data, Mr. Pinker, the data!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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