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Talking good like MIT folks should

To who it may concern:

Do you want to daringly split some infinitives? End some sentences any way you want to? Just blow off people who don't like slang?

Between you and I, there's someone on the MIT faculty who could care less about some of the traditional rules governing grammar and usage.

In fact, Dr. Steven Pinker, professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, has taken on some of the so-called "language mavens," the self-appointed arbiters of correct English, in a big way. His first salvo was an article, "Grammar Puss," in the January 31 issue of The New Republic. And that was followed by his book, The Language Instinct (William Morrow & Co.), on which the magazine article was based.

(That could have read, "which the magazine article was based on," but it's difficult breaking old habits.)

Basically, Professor Pinker attacks some of the "prescriptive rules" that describe how people "ought to talk," on the grounds that the words "rule" and "grammar" have very different meanings to a scientist such as him (oops), and to a layperson.

"Scientists studying language propose `descriptive' rules, describing how people do talk," he writes. "Prescriptive and descriptive grammar are simply different things."

Later, he adds, "Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century."

Professor Pinker goes on to build a case for "nonstandard English," at least in some circumstances.

"I hope to convince you of two things," he writes. "Many prescriptive rules are just plain dumb and should be deleted from the handbooks. And most of standard English is just that, standard, in the sense of standard units of currency or household voltages. It is just common sense that people should be encouraged to learn the dialect that has become standard in their society. But there is no need to use terms like `bad grammar,' `fractured syntax' and `incorrect usage' when referring to rural, black and other nonstandard dialects (even if you dislike `politically correct' euphemism): the terms are not only insulting, but scientifically inaccurate."

But all this oversimplifies his message.

Hopefully (whoops), you'll have a chance to read the article and the book.

Postscript: One of the "language mavens" engaged by Professor Pinker, albeit admiringly, is William Safire, The New York Times op-ed page columnist and author of the weekly column, "On Language," in the Times' Sunday magazine. It was the same Safire who/whom (take your choice) Bobby Ray Inman railed against-for having criticized him in print-when he announced his decision not to become Secretary of Defense.

Professor Pinker e-mailed this addendum to Here and There: "Another media twist is that my article coincidentally appeared the same week as the Bobby Ray Inman fiasco. The San Francisco Chronicle therefore ran an article on January 25 entitled, `Safire Takes Another Hit,' about the The New Republic article. As one of my students wrote to me, `I really liked your article, and I bet Bobby Ray Inman liked it too!'"

A version of this article appeared in the February 9, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 22).

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