Steven Pinker, Is My Blog a Stinker?


Pinker Pic

This post is a response to the call by my English Department colleague Sheila Kennedy. She wants the Faculty Forum to be a site for reflections about the teaching of writing to college students –  writing instruction for college assignments, for workplace writing, and for making sense of their lives. It also a contribution to the many conversations about writing taking place during National Writing Week.

Who is Steven Pinker? He’s a Harvard professor with specializations in cognitive psychology and linguistics. He’s the author of a number of influential books: The Language Instinct explored the phenomenon of language acquisition, The Blank Slate examined the nature of consciousness and mind, and The Better Angels of Our Nature made a case for the decline in violence over the centuries. His latest work is  The Sense of Style. The subtitle provides a good indication of its intentions: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 20th Century. It’s Pinker’s entry into a rather overcrowded field of writing improvement books that are traceable to very influential The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (1920; revised in 1959). A clear explainer and a wonderful stylist, Pinker has the authority to speak on the topic.

Pinker is a descriptive linguistic; he prefers to describe what the common communication practices are rather than defining what they should be. He prefers to loosen rather than tighten rules. Thus, we learn in Charles McGrath’s review of A Sense of Style (“Omit Needless Rules,” NYTimes, October 19, 2014) that Pinker wants to reduce writer anxiety through his advocacy of a classical style (direct, conversational, unfussy). And that he’s not hung up on errors in language etiquette that purists find in bad taste or evidence of stupidity or inferiority. He’s tolerant of “hopefully” used when “I hope” might be preferred, and accepting of “between you and I” where “between you and me” is the only choice for Strunk and White.

A good sense of Pinker’s campaign against bad writing can be found in his recent article in the September 26th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education:  “Why Academic Writing Stinks.” Although the audience for “Why Academic Writing Stinks” is primarily college teachers rather than the general public, some of the diagnoses and remedies apply to both. It’s a full-frontal attack on the writing sins of professors.

Pinker rejects some of the reasons why the communication between professionals in the disciplines is so obscure and off-putting:

  • That academics try to cover up the fact that they really have nothing to say.
  • That complex subjects require complex prose for their communication.
  • That scholars are prisoners of their academic clubs that insist on particular styles and formats.

While he honors others:

  • That academic writers are more concerned with self-presentation than with communicating clearly to a particular audience.
  • That in their earnest desire to guide their readers through an argument, the writers provide too much meta-discourse (that is, the frequently unnecessary directions about how we are to read and follow the argument)
  • That scholars are unnecessarily apologetic about their conclusions and too often hedge their statements, thus resulting in convoluted and airless prose.
  • That writers, so close to their narrow specialization, overestimate what the general reader knows and fail to provide explanation and examples. Or writers underestimate what the reader knows and provide too much explanation.

Some of these faults of the scholar-writer are also the faults of the ordinary writer or the developing student-writer who, like the professional, fails to understand what the rhetorical situation (the relationship between subject, writer, and reader) requires. Just like the academic, the developing writer may fail to achieve the appropriate level of meta-discourse.

Reading Pinker, I wanted to remedy my prose immediately. I went back into my last blog post, a review of Gone Girl to look critically at what I wrote. Some notes on what I found:

The Faculty Forum/blog site manager reminds contributors to keep it short, mindful of the ways in which most readers peruse online sites. [I’m afraid that I surpassed that limit a few paragraphs back.] But I think that she also wants us to keep sentences news-copy short. Going back over the first paragraph of my review, I tabulated the average length of the first seven sentences: 32 words. More than a third of the total number of words are placed in relative clauses, that is in constructions that are not part of the main subject-verb-object string (sometimes called the kernel sentence). This embedding is usually thought to be a sign of a sophisticated, mature style. I’ll leave the question of whether the sentence syntax choices that I’ve made create obscurity and/or test your patience. You mighty also take a look at the latest entry from Ewa Bacon on the Ebola Crisis. The average number of words in the first seven sentences is 10 and only one sentence contains a noun clause. Is this a more effective style for a Faculty Forum?

Pinker says that over-explaining and under-explaining are the result of The Curse of Knowledge. We labor under this curse when we are writing to a general audience (e.g., those who are presumed to be interested in contemporary movies and share some common cultural touchstones) and try to ascertain what they know. In looking at my review, I see that I have included various allusions – to classical mythology, to a well-known 19th century novel, to an American movie of the 40s, to a popular news website, and to a fashion and culture magazine for young women. I also fused into a sentence the colloquial phrase “Midwest hunk” and the name of a high-culture French author. In each of these cases I had to make a decision on how much information to provide, given an audience that I defined as college educated with an 11th grade reading ability. Did I undershoot the mark by not defining Pygmalion and Buzzfeed? Did I overshoot the mark by explaining, not in any great detail to be sure, the Colonel Sherburn essay in Huckleberry Finn? Should I have explained what a noun clause is at the end of the last paragraph?  These choices are what make writing challenging and hard.

The second paragraph of the review is the pivot-point in the essay. It’s where I direct the reader to understand that my focus is not on what other viewers might be looking at. It’s here that I want my reader to understand that I’m interested in what the movie might say about class warfare and status anxiety in this country. Is this bit of meta-discourse too much or too little? Is it a point that I should have reminded my reader in another piece of meta-discourse a few paragraphs further on?

A footnote:

Above you’ll find this sentence: Reading Steven Pinker, you want to remedy your prose immediately.

This sentence began as After reading Steven Pinker, you’ll want to carefully examine your writing and go about the business of fixing it. The change was made to achieve economy.

The next version read as follows: Reading Steven Pinker, you want to immediately remedy your prose. This change was made to avoid the split infinitive, though I don’t think that this breach of the rule is a major violation. In fact, I thought about leaving the sentence with a split infinitive unchanged because I believe that no confusion was created.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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