Steven Pinker Looks At Writing in 21st Century


A Conversation with Steven Pinker [6.9.14]

[This article from Edge by Steven Pinker mentions his forthcoming book The Sense of Style (to be released in September 2014), which looks at offering some prescriptions that move forward from the classic writing manual by Strunk and White. Sounds like it should be interesting… Roy Hamric]


I believe that science can inform all aspects of life, particularly psychology, my own favorite science. Psychology looks in one direction to biology, to neuroscience, to genetics, to evolution. And it looks in another direction to the rest of intellectual and cultural life—because what are the arts but products of the human mind which resonate with our aesthetic and emotional faculties? What are social issues but ways in which humans try to coordinate their behavior and come to working arrangements that benefit everyone? There’s no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself. 

I’m a psychologist who studies language—a psycholinguist—and I’m also someone who uses language in my books and articles to convey ideas about, among other things, the science of language itself. But also, ideas about war and peace and emotion and cognition and human nature. The question I’m currently asking myself is how our scientific understanding of language can be put into practice to improve the way that we communicate anything, including science?

In particular, can you use linguistics, cognitive science, and psycholinguistics to come up with a better style manual—a 21st century alternative to the classic guides like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style?

Writing is inherently a topic in psychology. It’s a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind. The medium by which we share complex ideas, namely language, has been studied intensively for more than half a century. And so if all that work is of any use it ought to be of use in crafting more stylish and transparent prose. 

514KdjNToLL._SL160_From a scientific perspective, the starting point must be different from that of traditional manuals, which are lists of dos and don’ts that are presented mechanically and often followed robotically. Many writers have been the victims of inept copyeditors who follow guidelines from style manuals unthinkingly, never understanding their rationale.

For example, everyone knows that scientists overuse the passive voice. It’s one of the signatures of academese: “the experiment was performed” instead of “I performed the experiment.” But if you follow the guideline, “Change every passive sentence into an active sentence,” you don’t improve the prose, because there’s no way the passive construction could have survived in the English language for millennia if it hadn’t served some purpose. 

The problem with any given construction, like the passive voice, isn’t that people use it, but that they use it too much or in the wrong circumstances. Active and passive sentences express the same underlying content (who did what to whom) while varying the topic, focus, and linear order of the participants, all of which have cognitive ramifications. The passive is a better construction than the active when the affected entity (the thing that has moved or changed) is the topic of the preceding discourse, and should therefore come early in the sentence to connect with what came before; when the affected entity is shorter or grammatically simpler than the agent of the action, so expressing it early relieves the reader’s memory load; and when the agent is irrelevant to the story, and is best omitted altogether (which the passive, but not the active, allows you to do). To give good advice on how to write, you have to understand what the passive can accomplish, and therefore you should not blue-pencil every passive sentence into an active one (as one of my copyeditors once did).

Ironically, the aspect of writing that gets the most attention is the one that is least important to good style, and that is the rules of correct usage. Can you split an infinitive, that is, say, “to boldly go where no man has gone before,”or must you say to “go boldly”? Can you use the so-called fused participle—”I approve of Sheila taking the job”—as opposed to “I approve of Sheila’s taking the job” (with an apostrophe “s”)? There are literally (yes, “literally”) hundreds of traditional usage issues like these, and many are worth following. But many are not, and in general they are not the first things to concentrate on when we think about how to improve writing. 

41Tj-FZ5aDL._SL160_The first thing you should think about is the stance that you as a writer take when putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Writing is cognitively unnatural. In ordinary conversation, we’ve got another person across from us. We can monitor the other person’s facial expressions: Do they furrow their brow, or widen their eyes? We can respond when they break in and interrupt us. And unless you’re addressing a stranger you know the hearer’s background: whether they’re an adult or child, whether they’re an expert in your field or not. When you’re writing you have none of those advantages. You’re casting your bread onto the waters, hoping that this invisible and unknowable audience will catch your drift.

The first thing to do in writing well—before worrying about split infinitives—is what kind of situation you imagine yourself to be in. What are you simulating when you write, and you’re only pretending to use language in the ordinary way? That stance is the main thing that distinguishes clear vigorous writing from the mush we see in academese and medicalese and bureaucratese and corporatese.

The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation. 

51lrx40mKEL._SL160_That may sound obvious. But it’s amazing how many of the bad habits of academese and legalese and so on come from flouting that model. Bad writers don’t point to something in the world but areself-conscious about not seeming naïve about the pitfalls of their own enterprise. Their goal is not to show something to the reader but to prove that they are nota bad lawyer or a bad scientist or a bad academic. And so bad writing is cluttered with apologies and hedges and “somewhats” and reviews of the past activity of people in the same line of work as the writer, as opposed to concentrating on something in the world that the writer is trying to get someone else to see with their own eyes. 

That’s a starting point to becoming a good writer. Another key is to be an attentive reader. One of the things you appreciate when you do linguistics is that a language is a combination of two very different mechanisms: powerful rules, which can be applied algorithmically, and lexical irregularities, which must be memorized by brute force: in sum, words and rules.

All languages contain elegant, powerful, logical rules for combining words in such a way that the meaning of the combination can be deduced from the meanings of the words and the way they’re arranged. If I say “the dog bit the man” or “the man bit the dog,” you have two different images, because of the way those words are ordered by the rules of English grammar.

On the other hand, language has a massive amount of irregularity: idiosyncrasies, idioms, figures of speech, and other historical accidents that you couldn’t possibly deduce from rules, because often they are fundamentally illogical. The past tense of “bring” is “brought,” but the past tense of “ring” is “rang,” and the past tense of “blink” is “blinked.” No rule allows you to predict that; you need raw exposure to the language. That’s also true for many rules of punctuation. If I talk about “Pat’s leg,” it’s “Pat-apostrophe-s.” But If I talk about “its leg,” I can’t use apostrophe S; that would be illiterate. Why? Who knows? That’s just the way English works. Peole who spell possessive “its” with an apostrophe are not being illogical; they’re being too logical, while betraying the fact that they haven’t paid close attention to details of the printed page.

So being a good writer depends not just on having mastered the logical rules of combination but on having absorbed tens or hundreds of thousands of constructions and idioms and irregularities from the printed page. The first step to being a good writer is to be a good reader: to read a lot, and to savor and reverse-engineer good prose wherever you find it. That is, to read a passage of writing and think to yourself, “How did the writer achieve that effect? What was their trick?” And to read a good sentence with a consciousness of what makes it so much fun to glide through.

41XfxGQEdOL._SL160_Any handbook on writing today is going to be compared to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a lovely little book, filled with insight and charm, which I have read many times. But William Strunk, its original author, was born in 1869. This is a man who was born before the invention of the telephone, let alone the computer and the Internet and the smartphone. His sense of style was honed in the later decades of the 19th century!

We know that language changes. You and I don’t speak the way people did in Shakespeare’s era, or in Chaucer’s. As valuable as The Elements of Style is (and it’s tremendously valuable), it’s got a lot of cockamamie advice, dated by the fact that its authors were born more than a hundred years ago. For example, they sternly warn, “Never use ‘contact’ as a verb. Don’t say ‘I’m going to contact him.’ It’s pretentious jargon, pompous and self-important. Indicate that you intend to ‘telephone’ someone or ‘write them’ or ‘knock on their door.'” To a writer in the 21st century, this advice is bizarre. Not only is “to contact” thoroughly entrenched and unpretentious, but it’s indispensable. Often it’s extremely useful to be able to talk about getting in touch with someone when you don’t care by what medium you’re going to do it, and in those cases, “to contact” is the perfect verb. It may have been a neologism in Strunk and White’s day, but all words start out as neologisms in their day. If you read The Elements of Style today, you have no way of appreciating that what grated on the ears of someone born in 1869 might be completely unexceptionable today.

The other problem is that The Elements of Style was composed before there existed a science of language and cognition. A lot of Strunk and White’s advice depended completely on their gut reactions from a lifetime of practice as an English professor and critic, respectively. Today we can offer deeper advice, such as the syntactic and discourse functions of the passive voice—a construction which, by the way, Strunk & White couldn’t even consistently identify, not having being trained in grammar.

Another advantage of modern linguistics and psycholinguistics is that it provides a way to think your way through a pseudo-controversy that was ginned up about 50 years ago between so-called prescriptivists and descriptivists. According to this fairy tale there are prescriptivists who prescribe how language ought to be used and there are descriptivists, mainly academic linguists, who describe how language in fact is used. In this story there is a war between them, with prescriptivist dictionaries competing with descriptivist . dictionaries.

Inevitably my own writing manual is going to be called “descriptivist,” because it questions a number of dumb rules that are routinely flouted by all the best writers and had no business being in stylebooks in the first place. These pseudo-rules violate the logic of English but get passed down as folklore from one style sheet to the next. But debunking stupid rules is not the same thing as denying the existence of rules, to say nothing of advice on writing. The Sense of Style is clearly prescriptive: it consists of 300 pages in which I boss the reader around.

This pseudo-controversy was created when Webster’s Third International Dictionary was published in the early 1960s. Like all dictionaries, it paid attention to the way that language changes. If a dictionary didn’t do that it would be useless: writers who consulted it would be guaranteed to be misunderstood. For example, there is an old prescriptive rule that says that “nauseous,” which most people use to mean nauseated, cannot mean that. It must mean creating nausea, namely, “nauseating.” You must write that a roller coaster ride was nauseous, or a violent movie was nauseous, not I got nauseous riding on the roller coaster or watching the movie. Nowadays, no one obeys this rule. If a dictionary were to stick by its guns and say it’s an error to say that the movie made me nauseous, it would be a useless dictionary: it wouldn’t be doing what a dictionary has to do. This has always been true of dictionaries. 

But there’s a myth that dictionaries work like the rulebook of Major League Baseball; they legislate what is correct. I can speak with some authority in saying that this is false. I am the Chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, which is allegedly the prescriptivist alternative to the descriptivist Webster’s. But when I asked the editors how they decide what goes into the dictionary, they replied, “By paying attention to the way people use language.”

Of course dictionary editors can’t pay attention to the way everyone uses language, because people use language in different ways. When you write, you’re writing for a virtual audience of well-read, literate fellow readers. And those are the people that we consult in deciding what goes into the dictionary, particularly in the usage notes that comment on controversies of usage, so that readers will know what to anticipate when they opt to obey or flout an alleged rule.

This entire approach is sometimes criticized by literary critics who are ignorant of the way that language works, and fantasize about a golden age in which dictionaries legislated usage. But language has always been a grassroots, bottom-up phenomenon. The controversy between “prescriptivists” and “descriptivists” is like the choice in “America: Love it or leave it” or “Nature versus Nurture”—a euphonious dichotomy that prevents you from thinking.

Many people get incensed about so-called errors of grammar which are perfectly unexceptionable. There was a controversy in the 1960s over the advertising slogan “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” The critics said it should be “as a cigarette should” and moaned about the decline of standards. . A more recent example was an SAT question that asked students whether there was an error in “Toni Morrison’s genius allows her to write novels that capture the African American condition.” Supposedly the sentence is ungrammatical: you can’t have “Toni Morrison’s” as an antecedent to the pronoun “she.” Now that is a complete myth: there was nothing wrong with the sentence.

Once a rumor about a grammatical error gets legs, it can proliferate like an urban legend about alligators in the sewers. Critics and self-appointed guardians of the language will claim that language is deteriorating because people violate the rule—which was never a rule in the first place. It’s so much fun to be in high dudgeon over the decline of language and civilization that these critics don’t stop to check the rulebooks and dictionaries to discover how great writers write or to learn the logic of the English language.

Poets and novelists often have a better feel for the language than the self-appointed guardians and the pop grammarians because for them language is a medium. It’s a way of conveying ideas and moods with sounds. The most gifted writers—the Virginia Woolfs and H.G. Wellses and George Bernard Shaws and Herman Melvilles—routinely used words and constructions that the guardians insist are incorrect. And of course avant-garde writers such as Burroughs and Kerouac, and poets pushing the envelope or expanding the expressive possibilities of the language, will deliberately flout even the genuine rules that most people obey. But even non-avant garde writers, writers in the traditional canon, write in ways that would be condemned as grammatical errors by many of the purists, sticklers and mavens. 

Another bit of psychology that can make anyone a better writer is to be aware of a phenomenon sometimes called The Curse of Knowledge. It goes by many names, and many psychologists have rediscovered versions of it, including defective Theory of Mind, egocentrism, hindsight bias, and false consensus. They’re all versions of an infirmity afflicting every member of our species, namely that it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know something that you do know. 

It’s easiest to see it in children. In one famous experiment, kid comes into a room, opens a box of candy, finds pencils inside, and the kid is surprised. Then you say to him, “Now Jason’s going to come into the room. What does he think is in the box?” And the child will say “pencils.” Of course, Jason has no way of knowing that the box had pencils, but the first child is projecting his own state of knowledge onto Jason, forgetting that other people may not know what he knows.

Now we laugh at the kids, but it’s true of all of us. We as writers often use technical terms, abbreviations, assumptions about typical experimental methods, assumptions about what questions we ask in our research, that our readers have no way of knowing because they haven’t been through the same training that we have. Overcoming the curse of knowledge may be the single most important requirement in becoming a clear writer. 

Contrary to the common accusation that academic writing is bad because professors are trying to bamboozle their audience with highfalutin gobbledygook, I don’t think that most bad prose is deliberate. I think it is inept. It is a failure to get inside the head of your reader. We also know from psychology that simply trying harder to get inside the head of your reader is not the ideal way to do it. No matter how hard we try, we’re at best okay, but not great, at anticipating another person’s state of knowledge.

Instead, you have to ask. You’ve got to show people a draft. Even if you’re writing for laypeople, your reviewers don’t all have to be laypeople; a colleague is better than no one. I’m often astonished at things that I think are obvious that turn out to be not so obvious to other people.

Another implication of the curse of knowl.edge is that having an editor is a really good thing. Supposedly there are writers who can dash off a perfectly comprehensible, clear, and coherent essay without getting feedback from a typical reader, but most of us don’t have that clairvoyance. We need someone to say “I don’t understand this” or ” What the hell are you talking about?” To say nothing of attention to the fine points of punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and other ways in which a sophisticated copyeditor can add value to your written work. 

How much of this advice comes from my experience as a writer and how much from my knowledge as a psycholinguist? Some of each. I often reflect on psychology behind the thousands of decisions I make as a writer in the lifelong effort to improve my prose, and I often think about how to apply experiments on sentence comprehension and the history of words and the logic (and illogic) of grammar to the task of writing. I might think, “, Aha, the reason I rewrote this sentence that way is because of the memory demands of subject versus object relative clauses,.”

This combination of science and letters is emblematic of what I hope to be a larger trend we spoke of earlier, namely the application of science, particularly psychology and cognitive science, to the traditional domains of humanities. There’s no aspect of human communication and cultural creation that can’t benefit from a greater application of psychology and the other sciences of mind. We would have an exciting addition to literary studies, for example, if literary critics knew more about linguistics. Poetry analysts could apply phonology (the study of sound structure) and the cognitive psychology of metaphor. An analysis of plot in fiction could benefit from a greater understanding of the conflicts and confluences of ultimate interests in human social relationships. The genre of biography would be deepened by an understanding of the nature of human memory, particularly autobiographical memory. How much of the memory of our childhood is confabulated? Memory scientists have a lot to say about that. How much do we polish our image of ourselves in describing ourselves to others, and more importantly, recollecting our own histories? Do we edit our memories in an Orwellian manner to make ourselves more coherent in retrospect? Syntax and semantics are relevant as well. How does a writer use the tense system of English to convey a sense of immediacy or historical distance? 

51UIqcPljPL._SL160_In music the sciences of auditory and speech perception have much to contribute to understanding how musicians accomplish their effects. The visual arts could revive an old method of analysis going back to Ernst Gombrich and Rudolf Arnheim in collaboration with the psychologist Richard Gregory Indeed, even the art itself in the 1920s was influenced by psychology, thanks in part to Gertrude Stein, who as an undergraduate student of William James did a wonderful thesis on divided attention, and then went to Paris and brought the psychology of perception to the attention of artists like Picasso and Braque. Gestalt psychology may have influenced Paul Klee and the expressionists. Since then we have lost that wonderful synergy between the science of visual perception and the creation of visual art. 

Going beyond the arts, the social sciences, such as political, science could benefit from a greater understanding of human moral and social instincts, such as the psychology of dominance, the psychology of revenge and forgiveness, and the psychology of gratitude and social competition. All of them are relevant, for example, to international negotiations. We talk about one country being friendly to another or allying or competing, but countries themselves don’t have feelings. It’s the elites and leaders who do, and a lot of international politics is driven by the psychology of its leaders.

Even beyond applying the findings of psychology and cognitive science and social and affective neuroscience, it’s the mindset of science that ought to be exported to cultural and intellectual life as a whole. That consists in increased skepticism and scrutiny about factual conventional wisdom: How much of what you think is true really is true if you go to the, the numbers? For me this has been a salient issue in analyzing violence, because the conventional wisdom is that we’re living in extraordinarily violent times.

But if you take into account the psychology of risk perception, as pioneered by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Paul Slovic, Gerd Gigerenzer, and others, you realize that the conventional wisdom is systematically distorted by the source of our information about the world, namely the news. News is about the stuff that happens; it’s not about the stuff that doesn’t happen. Human risk perception is affected by memorable examples, according to Tversky and Kahneman’s availability heuristic. No matter what the rate of violence is objectively, there are always enough examples to fill the news. And since our perception of risk is influenced by memorable examples, we’ll always think we’re living in violent times. It’s only when you apply the scientific mindset to world events, to political science and history, and try to count how many people are killed now as opposed to ten years ago, a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago that you get an accurate picture about the state of the world and the direction that it’s going, which is largely downward. That conclusion only came from applying an empirical mindset to the traditional subject matter of history and political science. 

The other aspect of the scientific mindset that ought to be exported to the rest of intellectual life is the search for explanations. That is, not to just say that history is one damn thing after another, that stuff happens, and there’s nothing we can do to explain why, but to relate phenomena to more basic or general phenomena … and to try to explain those phenomena with still more basic phenomena. We’ve repeatedly seen that happen in the sciences, where, for example, biological phenomena were explained in part at the level of molecules, which were explained by chemistry, which was explained by physics.

There’s no reason that that this process of explanation can’t continue. Biology gives us a grasp of the brain, and human nature is a product of the organization of the brain, and societies unfold as they do because they consist of brains interacting with other brains and negotiating arrangements to coordinate their behavior, and so on.

Now I know that there is tremendous resistance to this idea, because it’s confused with a boogeyman called “reductionism”—the fear that we must explain World War I in terms of genes or even elementary particles.

But explanation does not imply reduction. You reduce the building blocks of an explanation to more complex phenomena one level down, but you don’t discard the explanation of the phenomenon itself. So World War I obviously is not going to be explained in terms of neuroscience. On the other hand, World War I could be explained in terms of the emotions of fear and dominance and prestige among leaders, which fell into a deadly combination at that moment in history. And instead of just saying, “Well, that’s the way things are, and there’s nothing more we can say about it,” we can ask, , “Why do people compete for prestige? Why do people have the kinds of fears that they do?

The answer doesn’t have to be, “Because I said so” or “Because that’s the way it is.” You can ask, “How does the psychology of fear work? How does the psychology of dominance work? How does the psychology of coalitions work?” Having done that, you get a deeper understanding of some of the causes of World War I. That doesn’t mean you throw out the conventional history of World War I, it just means that you enrich it, you diversity it, you deepen it. A program of unifying the arts and humanities with the psychological sciences and ultimately the biological sciences promises tremendous increases of depth of understanding for all the fields. 

I’m often asked, “Who are the leaders of this movement? Whose writings should we be reading and discussing?” But that misses the point. It’s not about individual people. It’s more revolutionary than just reading this, that or the other person. There has to be a change in mindset coming from both directions. It’s not just a question of getting traditional scholars from the humanities and social sciences to start incorporating more science, to start thinking more like scientists. It’s got to work the other direction as well. A lot of scientists really are philistines when it comes to history and political theory and philosophy. We need to break down the idea that there are these separate disciplines and modes of study.

In trying to figure out what would give us the deepest, most insightful, most informative understanding of the world and ourselves, we have to be aware of the turf battles: who gets the franchise for talking about what matters. That is one reason that there is cadre of traditional intellectuals who have been hostile to science. I’m not talking about the climate deniers or the vaccine kooks but those who resent the idea that the discussion of what matters, of morality, of politics, of meaning, of purpose should be taken on by these philistines called scientists or social scientists. They act as if the franchise for these heavyweight topics has been given to critics and literary scholars and commentators on religion.

But we need not give credence to people who are simply protecting their turf. It’s becoming increasingly clear over the decades and centuries that an understanding of science is central to our understanding of the deepest questions of who we are, where we came from, what matters. If you aren’t aware of what science has to say about who we are and what we’re like as a species, then you’re going to be missing a lot of insight about human life. The fact that this upsets certain traditional bastions of commentary shouldn’t matter. People always protect their turf.

That’s why I’m reluctant to answer when I’m asked who are the people we should be reading, what names can we associate with this approach. It’s not about people. It’s about the ideas, and the ideas inevitably come piecemeal from many thinkers. The ideas are refined, exchanged, accumulated, and improved by a community of thinkers, each of whom will have some a few ideas and a lot of bad ideas. What we’ve been talking about is a direction that I hope the entire intellectual culture goes in. It’s not about anointing some guru.

Another intellectual error we must be suspicious of is the ever-present tendency to demonize the younger generation and the direction in which culture and society are going. In every era there are commentators who say that the kids today are dumbing down the culture and taking human values with them. Today the accusations are often directed at anything having to do with the Web and other electronic technologies—as if the difference between being printed on dead trees and displayed as pixels on a screen is going to determine the content of ideas. We’re always being told that young people suck: that they are illiterate and unreflective and un-thoughtful, all of which ignores the fact that every generation had that said about them by the older generation. Yet somehow civilization persists.

An appreciation of psychology can remind us that we as a species are prone to these bad habits. When we comment on the direction that intellectual life is going, we should learn to discount our own prejudices, our own natural inclination to say “I and my tribe are entitled to weigh in on profound issues, but members of some other guild or tribe or clique are not.” And “My generation is the embodiment of wisdom and experience, and the younger generation is uncouth, illiterate, unwashed and uncivilized.” better

There is no conflict between the sciences and humanities, or at least there shouldn’t be. There should be no turf battle as to who gets to speak about what matters. What matters are ideas. We should seek the ideas that give us the deepest, richest, best-informed understanding of the human condition, regardless of which people or what discipline originates them. That has to include the sciences, but it can’t come only from the sciences. The focus should be on ideas, not on people, disciplines, or academic traditions.



2 Comments on “Steven Pinker Looks At Writing in 21st Century”

  1. Marq says:

    Good morning, Roy,

    Another day here in Northeast Texas with mosquitoes out in full force. Always good to see notice of your new blog in the mailbox. Just want to say, before I forget, that yours is one of two or three that I read with any regularity, not only for book news but also for photography and good memories of time spent with Judy and Roxy and friends. Reading Maya Angelou again, too, off and on since news of her recent passing, as well as the occasional pop novel and Time magazine. They seem to have a special subscription rate for senior citizens. Listening to Richard Dobson’s new CD of Gulf Coast songs which is also excellent. Hope you are well and safe, Marquetta [Marquetta and her husband, Rocky, are book people, and they own Lucky Dog Books in Dallas, a great bookshop.]

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