Steven Pinker Identifies 10 Breakable Grammatical Rules: “Who” Vs. “Whom,” Dangling Modifiers & More

The sense of style

We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Har­vard cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Steven Pinker dis­cussing writ­ing at a Har­vard con­fer­ence on the sub­ject. In that case, the focus was nar­row­ly on aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing, which, he has uncon­tro­ver­sial­ly claimed, “stinks.” Now—“not con­tent with just poach­ing” in the land of the scribes, writes Charles McGrath at The New York Times Sun­day Book Review—Pinker has dared to “set him­self up as a game­keep­er” with a new book—The Sense of Style: The Think­ing Person’s Guide to Writ­ing in the 21st Cen­tu­ry. The grandiose title sug­gests to McGrath that the sci­en­tist intends to sup­plant that most ven­er­a­ble, and most dat­ed, clas­sic writer’s text by Strunk and White. He’s gone from chid­ing his fel­low schol­ars to writ­ing pre­scrip­tions for us all.

But if this seems out of bounds, wait until you hear what he sug­gests. Instead of issu­ing even more seem­ing­ly arbi­trary, bur­den­some com­mands, Pinker aims to free us from the tyran­ny of the sense­less in grammar—or, as he calls it in an arti­cle at The Guardian, from “folk­lore and super­sti­tion.” Below are five of the ten “com­mon issues of gram­mar” Pinker selects “from those that repeat­ed­ly turn up in style guides, pet-peeve lists, news­pa­per lan­guage columns and irate let­ters to the edi­tor.” In each case, he explains the absur­di­ty of strict adher­ence and offers sev­er­al per­fect­ly rea­son­able excep­tions that require no cor­rec­tion to clar­i­fy their mean­ing.

  1. Begin­ning sen­tences with con­junc­tions

We have almost cer­tain­ly all been taught in some fash­ion or anoth­er that this is a no-no. “That’s because teach­ers need a sim­ple way” to teach chil­dren “how to break sen­tences.” The “rule,” Pinker says, is “mis­in­for­ma­tion” and “inap­pro­pri­ate for adults.” He cites only two exam­ples here, both using the con­junc­tion “because”: John­ny Cash’s “Because you’re mine, I walk the line,” and the stock parental non-answer, “Because I said so.” And yet (see what I did?), oth­er con­junc­tions, like “and,” “but,” “yet,” and “so” may also “be used to begin a sen­tence when­ev­er the claus­es being con­nect­ed are too long or com­pli­cat­ed to fit com­fort­ably into a sin­gle megasen­tence.”

  1. Dan­gling mod­i­fiers

Hav­ing taught Eng­lish com­po­si­tion for sev­er­al years, and thus hav­ing read sev­er­al hun­dred scram­bled stu­dent essays, I find this one dif­fi­cult to con­cede. The dan­gling modifier—an espe­cial­ly easy error to make when writ­ing quickly—too eas­i­ly cre­ates con­fu­sion or down­right unin­tel­li­gi­bil­i­ty. Pinker does admit since the sub­jects of dan­gling mod­i­fiers “are inher­ent­ly ambigu­ous,” they might some­times “inad­ver­tent­ly attract a read­er to the wrong choice, as in ‘When a small boy, a girl is of lit­tle inter­est.’” But, he says, this is not a gram­mat­i­cal error. Here are a few “dan­glers” he sug­gests as “per­fect­ly accept­able”:

“Check­ing into the hotel, it was nice to see a few of my old class­mates in the lob­by.”

“Turn­ing the cor­ner, the view was quite dif­fer­ent.”

“In order to con­tain the epi­dem­ic, the area was sealed off.”

  1. Who and Whom

I once had a stu­dent ask me if “whom” was an archa­ic affec­ta­tion that would make her writ­ing sound forced and unnat­ur­al. I had to admit she had an excel­lent point, no mat­ter what our over­priced text­book said. In most cas­es, even if cor­rect­ly used, whom can indeed sound “for­mal verg­ing on pompous.” Though they seem straight­for­ward enough, “the rules for its prop­er use,” writes Pinker, “are obscure to many speak­ers, tempt­ing them to drop ‘whom’ into their speech when­ev­er they want to sound posh,” and to gen­er­al­ly use the word incor­rect­ly. Despite “a cen­tu­ry of nag­ging by pre­scrip­tive gram­mar­i­ans,” the dis­tinc­tion between “who” and “whom” seems any­thing but sim­ple, and so one’s use of it—as with any tricky word or usage—should be care­ful­ly cal­i­brat­ed “to the com­plex­i­ty of the con­struc­tion and the degree of for­mal­i­ty” the writ­ing calls for. Put plain­ly, know how you’re using “whom” and why, or stick with the unob­jec­tion­able “who.”

  1. Very unique

Often­times we find the most innocu­ous-sound­ing, com­mon sense usages called out by uptight pedants as ungram­mat­i­cal when there’s no seem­ing rea­son why they should be. The phrase “very unique,” a descrip­tion that may not strike you as exces­sive­ly weird or back­ward, hap­pens to be “one of the com­mon­est insults to the sen­si­bil­i­ty of the purist.” This is because, such nar­row thinkers claim, as with oth­er cat­e­gor­i­cal expres­sions like “absolute” or “incom­pa­ra­ble,” some­thing either is or it isn’t, in the same way that one either is or isn’t preg­nant: “refer­ring to degrees of unique­ness is mean­ing­less,” says the log­ic, in the case of absolute adjec­tives. Of course, it seems to me that one can absolute­ly refer to degrees of preg­nan­cy. In any case, writes Pinker, “unique­ness is not like preg­nan­cy […]; it must be defined rel­a­tive to some scale of mea­sure­ment.” Hence, “very unique,” makes sense, he says. But you should avoid it on aes­thet­ic grounds. “’Very,’” he says, “is a sog­gy mod­i­fi­er in the best of cir­cum­stances.” How about “rather unique?” Too posh-sound­ing?

  1. That and which

I breathed an audi­ble sigh on encoun­ter­ing this one, because it’s a rule I find par­tic­u­lar­ly irk­some. Of note is that Pinker, an Amer­i­can, is writ­ing in The Guardian, a British pub­li­ca­tion, where things are much more relaxed for these two rel­a­tive pro­nouns. In U.S. usage, “which” is reserved for nonrestrictive—or option­al claus­es: “The pair of shoes, which cost five thou­sand dol­lars, was hideous.” For restric­tive claus­es, those “essen­tial to the mean­ing of the sen­tence,” we use “that.” Pinker takes the exam­ple of a sen­tence in a doc­u­men­tary on “Imel­da Marcos’s vast shoe col­lec­tion.” In such a case, of course, we would need that bit about the price; hence, “The pair of shoes that cost £5,000 was hideous.”

It’s a rea­son­able enough dis­tinc­tion, and “one part of the rule,” Pinker says, “is cor­rect.” We would rarely find some­one writ­ing “The pair of shoes, that cost £5,000…” after all. It prob­a­bly looks awk­ward to our eyes (though I’ve seen it often enough). But there’s sim­ply no good rea­son, he says, why we can’t use “which” freely, as the Brits already do, to refer to things both essen­tial and non-. “Great writ­ers have been using it for cen­turies,” Pinker points out, cit­ing who­ev­er (or “whomev­er”) trans­lat­ed that “ren­der unto Cae­sar” bit in the King James Bible and Franklin Roosevelt’s “a day which will live in infamy.” QED, I’d say. And any­way, “which” is so much love­li­er a word than “that.”

See Pinker’s Guardian piece for his oth­er five anti-rules and free your­self up to write in a more nat­ur­al, less stilt­ed way. That is, if you already have some mas­tery of basic Eng­lish. As Pinker right­ly observes, “any­one who has read an inept stu­dent paper [um-hm], a bad Google trans­la­tion, or an inter­view with George W. Bush can appre­ci­ate that stan­dards of usage are desir­able in many areas of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” How do we know when a rule is use­ful and when it impedes “clear and grace­ful prose?” It’s real­ly no mys­tery, Pinker says. “Look it up.” It sounds like his book might help put things into bet­ter per­spec­tive than most writ­ing guides, how­ev­er. You can also hear him dis­cuss his acces­si­ble and intu­itive writ­ing advice in the KQED inter­view with Michael Kras­ny above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Steven Pinker Uses The­o­ries from Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy to Explain Why Aca­d­e­m­ic Writ­ing is So Bad

Steven Pinker Explains the Neu­ro­science of Swear­ing (NSFW)

Steven Pinker: “Dear Human­ists, Sci­ence is Not Your Ene­my”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Tracey says:

    I won’t give Mr. Pinker any of my hard earned mon­ey. To name George Bush as hav­ing poor gram­mar in an inter­view is unnec­es­sary, and shows his obvi­ous polit­i­cal view­point. I don’t think pol­i­tics has any­thing to do with prop­er gram­mar. It just shows his lack of class and good man­ners. Geez! You must be a pompous ass.

  • Daniel Vian says:

    Mr. Pinker is a PhD linguist/psychologist and not by any stretch of any imag­i­na­tion a lit­er­ary expert. All the “rules” he talks about have been bro­ken by great authors for at least 200 years and any­one seri­ous about writ­ing knows that pre­ci­sion and clar­i­ty are more impor­tant than any rules–and so does any Eng­lish teacher with half a brain know it.So what else is new?

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