Steven Pinker: ‘Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions’

Steven Pinker in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_1417 Oct. 10 19.07People often ask me why I followed my 2011 book on the history of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, with a writing style manual. I like to say that after having written 800 pages on torture, rape, world war, and genocide, it was time to take on some really controversial topics like fused participles, dangling modifiers, and the serial comma.

It’s not much of an exaggeration. After two decades of writing popular books and articles about language, I’ve learned that people have strong opinions on the quality of writing today, with almost everyone finding it deplorable. I’ve also come to realise that people are confused about what exactly they should deplore. Outrage at mispunctuation gets blended with complaints about bureaucratese and academese, which are conflated with disgust at politicians’ evasions, which in turn are merged with umbrage at an endless list of solecisms, blunders, and peeves.

I can get as grumpy as anyone about bad writing. But as a scientist who studies language for a living (and who has had to unlearn the bad habits of academic writing) I long ago developed my own opinions on why so much prose is so egregious.

Contrary to the ubiquitous moaning about the imminent demise of the language, this is not a new problem. Similar lamentations about the slovenly habits of the young and the decline of English have appeared regularly since the invention of the printing press.

More here.