Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar

Masters-degree-jordan-awan-320Nathan Heller at The New Yorker:

Some skimmings from the final part of Pinker’s book ran in the Guardian last month, under the provocative headline “10 ‘Grammar Rules’ It’s OK To Break (Sometimes).” It is a brazen document. Armed with examples from pop culture and from the literary canon, Pinker tries to shoot down some basic principles of English grammar (such as the distinction between “who” and “whom”), some looser stylistic preferences (such as the recommendation against splitting infinitives), and some wholly permissible things widely rumored to be wrong (such as beginning sentences with “but” or “and”). He even takes aim at conventions enforced only in American English (introducing restrictive clauses with “that” and nonrestrictive clauses with “which”), which must have left someGuardian readers even more perplexed than they thought they were.

When it comes to language, many people distinguish between “prescriptivism” (the idea that correct usage should be defined by authorities) and “descriptivism” (the idea that any way a lot of people use the language is correct). Pinker, who has felt unfairly dismissed as a descriptivist, says that his new usage does not reflect either camp. It’s better. “Standards of usage are desirable in many arenas of communication,” he writes, and yet “many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons.” The cause is noble, and Pinker approaches it gamely.

more here.