Pinker and the brain

Steven Pinker was in town this week. He’s one of the world’s foremost psycholinguists: an expert in how humans use language, and in particular, how mewling babies become eloquent adults.

While he was here, in between (we can only assume) his many hair appointments, he gave a talk at the School of Life: a primer on how to write well. It was called Steven Pinker on writing well. (There’s a lesson right there.) We went along to hear his words of wisdom.

Walking into the auditorium, it was encouraging to see so many eager–looking people.

Stop. Pause. Reverse. That last sentence offended you, didn’t it? Did it? It should have. Maybe. In it, I committed a grave grammar sin. I dangled a modifier. That sounds slightly seedy, and there are those that would tell you it is.

According to many style guides, when you use a modifier (like ‘Walking into the auditorium’), you have to make the subject in the second clause explicit:

‘Walking into the auditorium, we were encouraged to see so many eager–looking people.’

But do you really have to? Few people would notice this ‘mistake’, and almost no one would confuse the meaning. OK, it might not be the world’s greatest sentence. But it does the job. So what’s the problem?

This was the general thrust of Professor Pinker’s talk. In his new book, The Sense of Style, he makes the case that many English grammar rules are merely a product of Victorian superciliousness.

In school, we’re taught not to split infinitives, and to avoid starting sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’. But great stylists — novelists, playwrights, poets — do these things all the time. These rules aren’t about good English: they’re just a stick to beat people with. (I broke another one there: ending a sentence with a preposition.)

Mostly, the rules that matter come naturally to us. If someone says, ‘The list of items are on the desk’, it sounds odd. But if you try to explain the error in terms of subject–verb agreement, a lot of people will give you a blank look.

As Pinker put it: ‘Unless you understand why a rule has been stated, you’re probably going to misapply it’. It’s often better to just trust your ear.


Finding one’s happy

Copywriters are a funny breed. Sometimes we’re linguistic innovators: happy to invent new words (like Aero’s famous ‘Irresistibubble’ campaign) and break grammar rules (Rightmove’s slogan, ‘Find your happy’, being a recent example).

But we can also be grammar snobs. Perhaps because people turn to us for grammatical smarts, we feel we should give them unimpeachable — you could say ‘safe’ — answers. ‘Strictly speaking…’ we advise. ‘A purist would say…’

This isn’t always a bad thing. But there’s a danger that we end up as technicians, rather than creatives. As dotters of i’s and crossers of t’s.

And there’s much fun to be had in bending the rules, especially when the rules are fairly silly to begin with. The writers of the US Constitution had their ‘more perfect Union’; Jane Austen had her litotes. Dickens wrote sentences that would give most sub–editors a heart attack:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light…’

In each case, the result is more evocative — more beautiful — than the grammatically ‘proper’ alternative. And while we shouldn’t mess with grammar for the sake of it, we absolutely should if the result is something more natural, striking, or enjoyable to read. Good writing should stir people’s hearts, not just tick the style guide boxes.

Towards the end of his talk, Pinker said: ‘In English usage, no one’s in charge. The lunatics are running the asylum.’

Well, quite. And that’s what makes it so fun.