Steven Pinker

on Proper Usage

Steven Pinker had a piece in the NYT yesterday about John Roberts’ flub of the Oath of Office, and why, from a grammatical standpoint, it doesn’t matter. He argues that the long-standing injunction against infinitive splitting is “a myth.”

Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.

I thought it was a pretty interesting argument, and I’m always glad to see a shibboleth overturned, so I forwarded the link to my friend Amy McDaniel, who of all my friends is probably the most interested in such things, as well as the best at them. (In addition to being an expert grammarian, she’s also an expert on food, and you can/should check out her contributions to the Slashfood blog.)  She replied to my message with a one-liner: “Steven Pinker is an enemy of proper usage,” to which I replied that “his insidious claims are deeply seductive.” I imagine at this point she realized I don’t know anything about Steven Pinker–or as much as I should about grammar–and so she sent me a passage of David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” wherein DFW critiques Pinker’s “descriptivist” approach to usage. The essay, which originally appeared in Harper’s in 2001, can be read in its entirety here, or you can find just the part that Amy sent me to settle the matter pasted in after the jump.


Excerpts & Random / 36 Comments
January 23rd, 2009 / 11:30 am