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More on the difficult craft

Two quotations for the day, the first moderately flippant, the second dead serious, from the chapter “The Language Mavens” in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct:

“[O]nce introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the educational and writing establishments, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing: I had to go through it and am none the worse, so why should you have it any easier?”

“The aspect of language use 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 presented on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conventional 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, instruction, feedback, and—probably most important—intensive exposure to good examples.”


*I suspect that Those People are not aware of such an attitude among descriptivists.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:02 PM | | Comments (6)


Am I alone in finding the first quote not moderately flippant but crude and unpleasant?

Right there with you, Picky. I just didn't know how to express myself as well as you did on the matter.


I think 'flippant' in this case refers to the offhand way Pinker delivers the crude analogy of unpleasant social activities with prescriptive rules.

Pinker is saying that some things are perpetuated despite there being little discernible benefit from their continued existence.

Although the activites are pretty nauseating, surely we can stomach the discussion of them, and their use as analogies.

I feel a great affinity with the second quote. It is quite good.

I'm afraid not, Bender. He's not using an analogy with activities that bring "little discernible benefit" but with an activity that brings appalling vicious damage. Certainly we can stomach discussion of it; it is a more important subject for discussion than the increasingly boring mauling over prescriptivism. But this use is (I think) cheap and vulgar. (It's a fascinating book, though.)

You mean write for the reader?

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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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