The Current

Good writing in the 21st century needs clarity, says Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is fed up with sloppy, awkward communication. In an effort to change this, he offers up "The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century." He believes his new style book will free people from antiquated notions of grammar.
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker believes his insights into mind and language can help people write with more clarity and style. (Max Gerber)
"Look at her a prisoner of the gutters. Condemned by every syllable she utters. By right she should be taken out and hung for the cold bloodied murder of the English tongue. This is what the British population calls an elementary education. Come sir I think you picked a poor example. Did I? Hear them down at Soho square dropping H's everywhere speaking English anyway they like."  - Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady


Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, set some famously rigid standards for those who wished to speak the Queen's English.... Only to be perenially disappointed by the indifference of his fellow Anglophones. 

And of course, before his time -- and since -- oceans of ink have been spilled writing out the rules of a language that often confuses even its own native speakers with capricious spellings and seemingly arbitrary regulations. 

Now a guide book has shaken up some of the sticklers of good grammar. In part because it is written by the renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. 

Also because Steven Pinker suggests dispensing with many of the very rules that Henry Higgins cherished.

Steven Pinker's latest book is The Sense of Style: the thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st Century.  Anna Maria Tremonti spoke with Steven Pinker last October from Boston. 


Stephen Pinker's Example of Bad Writing

Stephen Pinker calls out academics in particular for writing that is unclear, confusing, and difficult to understand. Here is an example of words penned by scholar and film critic Frederic Jameson:

The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer)
 

Stephen Pinker's Example of Good Writing

An excerpt from Richard Dawkins' book Unweaving the Rainbow:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.


​If you have a favourite passage that illustrates good writing -- or conversely, if there's a dud... let us know. 

Tweet us @TheCurrentCBC. Post on Facebook. Or send us an email. ... in your best prose, of course. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Josh Bloch.


now