Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Steven Pinker on Grammar

Steven Pinker is a favorite linguist of mine, and here's a piece about his views on grammar. Link courtesy of my partner Doug.

I think there is a difference between hedging and qualifying. So when you qualify, you state the circumstances in which a generalization does or does not hold. One can list the uncertainties or areas of or limitations of a study. One could certainly state the contrary evidence. All of that, as you know, is mandatory.

The problem is that academics hedge thoughtlessly. [...]So every sentence has a virtually or partially or so to speak in it, which adds no precision to the extent to which one ought to believe the finding

Very well said. I like the distinction that qualifying adds precision while hedging does not. Hedging is also something done habitually by women and other disempowered groups to make them seem less threatening.

I'm far more prone to qualifying. I'll say things like "typically" or "tends to" so as to establish a pattern without expressing a universal, and often mention exceptions or variations if I know of them. I'll stipulate areas of my expertise and level -- I'm a talented cook, but not a professional chef. I'm a hobby-linguist. I'm an adept poet.

Postmodernism is an extreme exaggeration of a stance which all academics have to some extent: we don’t open our eyes and just see the world as it is. We understand the world through our theories and constructs. We are constantly in danger of being misled by our own unconscious biases and assumptions. Gaining knowledge about the world is extremely difficult, so all of those qualifications are certainly true, and even scientists who believe in an objective reality acknowledge the fragility and difficulty of obtaining knowledge.

*laugh* I always see the world as it is. I also see it through my personal perspective, and a whole mass of cultural perspectives. It's like looking through layers of transparent maps, all at once, although I have some ability to sort through them for the ones most relevant at the moment. This creates a lot of tension because other people usually DO see the world through a specific and static construct, with which mine tend to clash. I don't care how many people say something is impossible; if I am looking at it happening, then I will treat it as real. I'm not going to get rained on by frogs just because some people think it doesn't happen. I will open a fucking umbrella.

Gaining knowledge about the world is easy. Gaining certainty is more challenging. But the data is always rolling in and you can always plot whatever of it you're getting.

Objective reality is often less useful than subjective reality. The world atomic clock may be perfect, but it's the one in the boss' or principal's office that everyone in the building has to go by. Objective reality is that everything is made of tiny whizzing bits pretending really hard to be solid matter. Subjective reality is that you need to avoid tripping over the coffee table.

The other category of bad writing you’re pretty hard on consists of phrases like, "Significantly expedite the process of," instead of just saying "Speed up.” I can understand constant hedging for purposes of “covering your anatomy,” as you put it in the book. But why does this kind of horrible writing persist?

I put my money on word count. You have to write a paper of a certain length, or you get paid by the word, so you pad. It's a nasty habit, but there are practical reasons behind it. You get what you reward. Look at the atrocious novel-bloat in fiction these days.

"Ain't" had the bad luck of not being spoken by the upper classes in London, so it was stigmatized as coarse, ungrammatical, incorrect, and so on, even though on its merits there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, it even has some nice properties, namely it doesn’t have that ugly sibilant and is a single syllable.

Yep. I still use it as a class marker, but also for certain endearments or pejoratives. Similarly "had ought to of" is not the same as "should have" or "had ought to have" -- it's a very specific condemnation, as in "had ought to of known better." These are useful things.

So you'll see when I'm writing dialect, sometimes it's lighter and sometimes it's very heavy and thick. I like to look up glossaries and guides that match the culture I'm portraying, to give a sense of how it really sounds. I love the sounds of accent and dialect. To me they are all equal; I think the status ranking is stupid.
Tags: how to, linguistics, networking, reading, writing

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