Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space for the third Secret Science Club North lecture, which featured the triumphant return of Harvard psychologist and linguist Dr Steven Pinker. Regular readers will remember that Dr Pinker presented a lecture last April at the Bell House concerning the decline of violence over the course of history. Last night's lecture touched on topics covered in Dr Pinker's new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. In this book, Dr Pinker, the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel, analyzes writing style manuals through the prism of cognitive science and linguistics.
The Sense of Style is a modern answer to the hoary old Strunk and White. He began the lecture by asking why writing is so hard, and why bad writing is so common, joking: "Bad writing is a choice!" He singled out "legalese" and "academese" as particularly egregious examples of bad writing. Bureaucrats use gibberish to evade responsibility, nerds use jargon as "revenge" on mundanes, and pseudo-intellectuals use gobbledegook to bamboozle their readers in order to seem smart. Being a kind man, Dr Pinker quickly followed these assertions with an acknowledgement that even good scientists and earnest people engage in bad writing.
Dr Pinker then took on the assertion that digital media are undermining the language. He had a very funny slide which addressed the limitations of Twitter's hundred-and-forty characters:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Ri
He quickly torpedoed the "Dumbest Generation Theory" by displaying various quotes concerning assertions like this dating back to 1785, following these with a relevant cartoon. He then quoted Darwin on the difference between speech and writing: “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew or write.” Speech is instinctive, writing is hard, and there is no feedback from the readers (readers are imaginary and can't interrupt during the writing process for clarification). Writing is both an act of pretense and an act of craftsmanship.
The talk then shifted focus to improving the craft of writing, whereupon Dr Pinker brought up Strunk and White's The Elements of Style While generally praising the book, Dr Pinker opined that language style manuals are largely collections of a particular stylist's preferences and peeves, not an understanding of how language works. He characterized some of the book's advice as "baffling" and asserted that we can produce a better approach to writing style by using science and modern scholarship. Much of the old stylistic advice was based on Latin grammar (not splitting infinitives is a perfect example of this- it can't be done with the one-word Latin infinitives). He also stressed the use of cognitive science to help determine whether a sentence is easy to read or difficult.
Dr Pinker made an argument for using "classic prose style", which involves showing an object, not describing the act of studying it- prose should be a window on reality, and should credit the reader's intelligence without apology or hedging. He also brought up the topic of the overuse of cliches, which can lead to mixed metaphors (with some particularly hilarious examples) and joked about membership of "AWFUL: Americans Who Figuratively Use Literally"
One particularly amusing example of bad stylistic advice was Strunk and White's admonishment to not use the passive voice, which uses the passive voice:
The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.
Dr Pinker defended the use of passive voice in the sciences, where an emphasis must be made on replicability (anyone should be able to replicate an experiment, this is encouraged by use of passive voice). He also noted that passive voice is useful to place emphasis on particular words- the word order in English is important due to the lack of case endings such as Latin or German have.
Dr Pinker also discussed the various approaches to acting as custodians of the language. Should there be a central authority determining proper usage (this has been attempted in countries such as France) or should changes in style occur naturally in a "bottom-up" fashion.
Since Dr Pinker is currently on a book tour supporting his new authorial endeavor, he has been delivering lectures on this topic all over the U.S. Here's a recording of one of his lectures, if you want to listen to the whole thing rather than my rehash of the topic:
Dr Pinker's talk blended humor, theory, and policy prescription. His criticisms were gentle and good-natured, his proposed solutions sensible. All-in-all, it was a lovely lecture which contained good advice for writers. Myself, I like to engage in wordplay... I like ambiguity and an occasional touch of grotesquerie in my writing. In the Q&A, I asked how one should differentiate between "plain bad" and "so bad it's good" writing, and Dr Pinker noted that exaggeration or an intentional misuse of language can be employed to comic effect, but that much of this is subjective.
Once again, my friends Dorian and Margaret of The Secret Science Club curated a fine lecture. The main hall of Symphony Space was packed for the lecture, and many attendees were new to the S.S.C. There was a hint about further Secret Science Club North lectures- hopefully, now that the word is out, the events will all take place in the main performance space (Dr Pinker is a celebrity- he has appeared numerous times on Stephen Colbert's show- let's hope there will be a "coattails" effect on future lectures). Kudos all around!