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Friday, November 13, 2015

Pinker - 'grammar rules' it's OK to break (sometimes)

Dr. Steven Pinker On Life (07:04) 

At The Colbert REPORT  - TV show -2007 (06:38)

'Many of the alleged rules of writing are                            actually superstitions'

Linguists and lexicographers have long known that many of the alleged rules of usage are actually superstitions. They originated for oddball reasons, violate the grammatical logic of English, degrade clarity and style, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries. At the same time, pointing out the illogic of many rules of usage means that rules of usage should interpreted judiciously, with a sensitivity to their historical provenance, consistency with English grammar, degree of formality, and effects on clarity and grace.For all these reasons, I have long recognised the need for a style guide based on modern linguistics and cognitive science.


What our language habits reveal

Stephen PINKER
     "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's".
 Standards of usage are desirable in many arenas of communication. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.
Does the putative rule confuse grammar with formality? Every writer commands a range of styles that are appropriate to different times and places. (...) Many prescriptive guides are oblivious to this distinction, and mistake informal style for incorrect grammar.

(four rules -out of 10)

like, as, such as

Long ago, in the bygone era when cigarettes were advertised on radio and television, every brand had a slogan:  And most infamously, "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should."
Writers are free to use either "like" or "as", mindful only that "as" is a bit more formal, and that the Winston-tastes-good controversy became such a bloody shirt in the grammar wars that readers may mistakenly think the writer has made an error.
A related superstition, ruthlessly enforced by many copy editors, is that "like" may not be used to introduce examples. According to this guideline, "like" may be used only for resemblance to an exemplar, as in "I'll find someone like you". (...) To end,  "Such as" is more formal than "like", but both are legitimate.
But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from a Jurassic's classroom is worth keeping. Many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries.

that and which

Many spurious rules start out as helpful hints intended to rescue indecisive writers from paralysis when faced with a choice provided by the richness of English. These guides for the perplexed also make the lives of copy editors easier, so they may get incorporated into style sheets. Before you know it, a rule of thumb morphs into a rule of grammar, and a perfectly innocuous (albeit second-choice) construction is demonised as incorrect. 
The choice between "that" and "which", according to the rule, is simple: 
  • nonrestrictive relative clauses take "which";  "The Cambridge restaurant, which had failed to clean its grease trap, was infested with roaches." 
  • restrictive relative clauses take "that".

To me, this second part of the rule is utterly incorrect. There is nothing wrong with using "which" to introduce a restrictive relative clause
 "The Cambridge restaurant which (that)  had failed to clean its grease trap, was infested with roaches." 
 Indeed, with some restrictive relatives, "which" is the only option, such as "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "The book in which I scribbled my notes is worthless." Even when "which" isn't mandatory, great writers have been using it for centuries, as in Franklin Roosevelt's "a day which will live in infamy".
So what's a writer to do? The real decision is not whether to use "that" or "which" but whether to use a restrictive or a nonrestrictive relative clause.
 "The Cambridge restaurant, which had failed to clean its grease trap, was infested with roaches." 

very unique

The purists say you can't be a little bit married or a little bit pregnant, and purists believe that the same is true for certain other adjectives. One of the commonest insults to the sensibility of the purist is the expression "very unique" and other phrases in hich an "absolute" or "incomparable" adjective is modified by an adverb of degree such as "more", "less", "somewhat", "quite" or "almost".
Great writers have been modifying absolute adjectives for centuries, including the framers of the American Constitution, who sought "a more perfect union". Many of the examples pass unnoticed by careful writers, including "nothing could be more certain" and "there could be no more perfect spot". Though the phrase "very unique" is universally despised, other modifications of "unique" are unobjectionable, as when Martin Luther King wrote, "I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers."

count nouns, mass nouns and "ten items or less"

English speakers can conceptualise aggregates as discrete things, which are expressed as plural count nouns, such as "pebbles" or as continuous substances, which are expressed as mass nouns, such as "gravel".
 the purists have botched the "less-fewer" distinction. "Less" is perfectly natural with a singular count noun, as in "one less car" and "one less thing to worry about". It's also natural when the entity being quantified is a continuous extent and the count noun refers to units of measurement, such as "21 years old" and "70 miles an hour".
And "less" is idiomatic in certain expressions in which a quantity is being compared to a standard, such as "Describe yourself in 50 words or less."

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