>>: So it's an honor today to have Steven Pinker
with us. Steven is an experimental psychologist and
perhaps the world's foremost provider on language,
thinking, and human nature. As you can pick up very
easily from his writings over the last 20 years, he's
interested in all aspects of language and mind.
Steven is currently Johnstone Family Professor of
Psychology at Harvard University.
I was looking over his history this morning preparing
this introduction, and for many of us at Microsoft
Research, we find his academic and life history
He earned a bachelor's degree in experimental
psychology at McGill and then moved to Cambridge,
Massachusetts in 1976 where he spent time, as he
says, bouncing back and forth between Harvard and
MIT. Much of his initial research working with
Steven Kosslyn and others was in visual cognition,
including the ability to imagine shapes, recognize
faces and objects, and to direct attention within
visual field.
He earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1979. He did a
post-doc at MIT, and then a year as an assistant
professor at Harvard. In 1982 he moved back to MIT
where he stayed until 2003 when he returned to
Harvard University.
So almost to the month, 20 years ago, he starting
publishing the first of several wonderful books
written for general audiences and this was the start
of a string of hits. These include The Language
Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The
Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and recently the
Better Angels of Our Nature. His latest book, which
we'll talk about today, which I can't wait to read,
is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide
to Writing in the 21st Century.
Now, we ought to listen very careful to him today
beyond general interest. Steven has chaired the
usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, so
what we're talking about here, he's helping to define
the dictionary here in terms of usage, and he's been
also served as editor for various groups that we all
respect, the NSF, AAAS and the APA.
Before starting, I'd like to sort of mention a little
bit about the human side of Steven. I -- last April
he and I did an event together in Arizona called The
Origins Meeting, and I dragged my son along with me
because the deal was for the organizer, Lawrence
Kraus, that my son had to come with me because this
was a college tour. I'll show up and do this event,
but my son must come with me. So Zachary hung out
with me at this meeting, and this is Steven and
Zachary hanging out at our reception here. If I can
advance the slide here. That's okay. Here we go.
But just I caught them at a reception and just Steven
was so engaged with Zachary. Zachary had a lot of
questions -- he was an 11th grader then -- about the
cognition and the mind and you see how seriously
Steven takes Zachary's thoughts. He's very
interested in people and how they think and
individuals, and it's great to see how engaging he
can be with people of all ages. So let's give a warm
welcome here to Steven Pinker.
>> Steven Pinker: Thank you very much, Eric. Why is
so much writing so bad and how can we make it better?
Why do we have to put so much effort into deciphering
a legal contract such as: "The revocation by these
Regulations of a provision previously revoked subject
to savings does not affect the continued operations"?
Why is it so hard to penetrate a typical academic
article, such as: "It is the moment of
non-construction, disclosing the absentation of
actuality from the concept in part through its
invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness
of its fall into conceptuality."
Why is it so hard to set the time on
clock? Well, there's no shortage of
there, and probably the most popular
in this cartoon in which a boss says
a digital alarm
theories out
one is captured
to the tech
"Good start.
Needs more gibberish."
In other words, that bad writing is a deliberate
choice, that bureaucrats insist on gibberish to evade
responsibility. It's the revenge of the nerds.
Pasty-faced tech writers get their revenge on the
girls who turned them down on dates in high school or
the jocks who kicked sand in their faces.
Pseudo-intellectuals try to bamboozle their readers
with highfalutin gobbledygook, despite the fact that
they have nothing to say.
Well, I have no doubt that the bamboozlement theory
is true for some writers some of the time, but it's
also true that good people can write bad prose. I
know many scientists who have plenty to say. They do
ground-breaking research on important topics. They
have no need to impress, nothing to hide, but still,
their writing stinks.
There's another theory, which I'm sure many of you
are familiar with, which is that it's digital media
that are ruining the language. Google is making us
stupid. The digital age stupefies young Americans
and jeopardizes our future. Twitter forces us to
write, and therefore, think, in 140 characters.
I think there's a problem with the dumbest generation
theory, as well, which is that it makes an empirical
prediction; namely, that it was all better before the
digital age. That is -- and you remember what life
was like -- many of you are old enough -- before
instant messaging and email back in the 1980s. Those
were the days in which teenagers spoke in fluent
paragraphs, bureaucrats wrote in clear English, and
every academic article was a masterpiece in the art
of the essay. Remember those days? Or was it the
Well, maybe you have to go back even further, like
the 1960s. Well, in those days, they were saying
things like, "Recent graduates, including those with
university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the
language at all."
Well, maybe you have to go back before the invention
of TV and radio, say, to 1917. Well, in those days
you would hear: "From every college in the country
goes up the cry, 'Our freshmen can't spell, can't
punctuate.' every high school is in disrepair
because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest
Well, maybe we have to go back even further to the
Age of the Enlightenment, for example. And they
said: "Our language is degenerating very fast... I
begin to fear that it will be impossible to check
And then there are the ancient grammar police who
said, "Oh, for cryin' out loud... you never end a
sentence with a little birdie."
The thing is that writing -- bad writing has burdened
readers in every time and every generation, and my
favorite theory begins with an observation from
Charles Darwin that "Man has an instinctive tendency
to speak, as we see in the babble of our young
children, whereas no child has an instinctive
tendency to bake, brew, or write."
Speech is instinctive, but writing is and always has
been hard. Your reader is unknown, invisible,
inscrutable. They exist only in the writer's
imagination. They can't react to prose in real time
or break in or ask for clarification. And so writing
is an act of pretense and writing is an act of
So what can we do to improve the craft of writing?
Well, for many decades there was a single answer to
this question; namely, you give students or aspiring
writers this, The Iconic Elements of Style by William
Strunk, Jr., and a professor at Cornell and his
student, E.B. White, the beloved author of
Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little and a long-time New
Yorker essayist.
Note, by the way, that the junior member of this pair
was born before the turn of the century, that is,
before the turn of the 20th century.
Now, there's plenty of good sense in The Elements of
Style, and it is worth reading today. They have
little gems of advice, like use definite, specific,
concrete language, write with nouns and verbs, put
the emphatic words at the end, and my favorite, their
prime directive, omit needless words, which is an
excellent example of itself. No needless words
On the other hand, for all its fame, I think The
Elements of Style can't be the basis for writing
advice in the 20th century. For one thing, it is
filled with baffling advice, such as, "The word
'people' is not to be used with words of number in
place of 'persons.'" That is, you may not say three
people or ten people or 20 people.
Why? Well, if of six people, five went away, how
many people would be left? Answer? One people. Did
you get that?
By the same logic, you should never say, I have three
children or 32 teeth. It just makes no sense.
"To contact is vague and self important. Do not
contact people. Get in touch with them, look them
up, phone them, find them, or meet them."
Well, what happens if you don't care whether someone
phones another person or meets them or messages them
or emails them or tweets them? To contact happened
to be a neologism in the day of Professor Strunk, and
to his ear, it sounded like a faddish business
jargon. Since then, the word has passed into common
usage precisely because it's so useful; namely, there
are times where you don't care how one person is
going to get in touch with someone else, as long as
they do so, and so "to contact" has become completely
"Note that the word 'clever' means one thing when
applied to people, another when applied to horses. A
clever horse is a good-natured one, not an ingenious
The problem with traditional style advice is that it
consists of an arbitrary list of do's and don'ts
based on the tastes and peeves of the authors. It is
not grounded in a principled understanding of how
language works, and as a result, users have no way of
understanding and assimilating the advice, and as I
will try to show you, much of the advice is just
plain wrong.
I think we can do better today. We can base advice
on the science and scholarship of language: On
modern grammatical theory, which provides ways of
talking about syntax that are more suitable than the
old grammars based on Latin; and evidence-based
dictionaries and grammars; research from cognitive
science on what makes sentences easy or hard to read;
and historical and critical studies of usage, and
that's what I've tried to do in The Sense of Style.
It all begins with a model of effective prose. As
I've mentioned, writing is an unnatural act. Good
style requires, above all, some coherent mental model
of the communication scenario, what the writer is
trying to accomplish. My favorite of these models
comes from a book called Clear and Simple as the
Truth from the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas
and Mark Turner, and they call it classic style.
The model behind classic style is that prose is a
window on to the world. The writer sees something in
the world, he positions the reader so that she can
see it with her own eyes. The reader and writer are
equals. The goal is to help the reader see an
objective reality, and the style is conversation.
Well, that all sounds pretty obvious, so what's the
alternative? Well, it turns out there's a range of
alternative styles such as what they call
contemplative style, oracular style, practical style.
The one that many of us are familiar with from
academia is one they call postmodern or
self-conscious style in which "the writer's chief, if
unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of
philosophical naiveté about his own enterprise."
And as Thomas and Turner explain:
"When we open a
cookbook, we completely put aside -- and expect the
author to put aside -- the kind of question that
leads to the heart of certain philosophical
traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking?
Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which
knowledge is possible? Can anyone ever tell us
anything true about cooking? Classic style similarly
puts aside as inappropriate philosophical questions
about its enterprise. If it took those questions up,
it could never get around to treating its subject,
and its purpose is exclusively to treat its subject."
And since the whole idea behind classic prose is you
show the reader something in the world, I would be
hypocritical if I didn't at least give you an example
of classic prose. And the example that I've picked
comes from an article in Newsweek Magazine by the
physicist Brian Greene on the theory of inflationary
cosmology and one of its possible implications,
namely, multiple universes or the mutliverse.
So Greene, one little excerpt from this article, he
writes: "If space is now expanding, then at ever
earlier times the universe must have been ever
smaller. At some moment in the distant past,
everything we now see -- the ingredients responsible
for every planet, every star, every galaxy, even
space itself -- must have been compressed to an
infinitesimal speck that then swelled outward,
evolving into the universe as we know it.
"The big-bang theory was born... Yet, scientists were
aware that the big-bang theory suffered from a
significant shortcoming. Of call things, it leaves
out the bang. Einstein's equations do a wonderful
job of describing how the universe evolved from a
split second after the bang, but the equations break
down (similar to the error message return by a
calculator when you try to divide 1 by 0) when
applied to the extreme environment of the universe's
earliest moment. The big bang thus provides no
insight into what might have powered the bang
Now, Greene does not pause to apologize about how
terribly complicated and abstract the various
equations are. He presents the reader with an image
that they can see for themselves. If you can imagine
space expanding, you can run the mental movie
backward and realize that it must have all begun with
a speck that then expanded outward.
Also, the fairly abstruse concept of mathematical
equations breaking down, which a typical reader of
Newsweek might have trouble appreciating, he
illustrates with an exact example; namely, if you
pull out your calculator and you put 1 divided by 0,
you get an error message. You can see it for
yourself, or, for that matter, you can even just
contemplate the paradox or the conceptual difficulty
of dividing the number 1 into 0 parts. Either way,
the reader can appreciate for himself or herself what
the concept of an equation breaking down is.
Many examples of writing advice are implications of
the model behind classic prose. Number one, in
classic prose the focus is on the thing being shown,
not the activity of studying it, namely, the writer's
job, peer group, daily activities, and other
professional concerns.
But let me give you a somewhat contrived example of
the opening of a typical review article that I might
have to endure in reading the professional literature
in my own field. "In recent years, an increasing
number of researchers have turned their attention to
the problem of child language acquisition. In this
article, recent theories of this process will be
No offense, but very few people are really interested
in how professors spend their time. A more classic
way of opening the same article might have been:
"All children acquire the ability to speak and
understand a language without explicit lessons. How
do they accomplish this feat?"
A corollary of this advice is to minimize the kind of
apologizing that seems mandatory in academic prose.
Again, I'll give you a somewhat, but only somewhat
contrived example. "The problem of language
acquisition is extremely complex. It is difficult to
give precise definitions of the concept of 'language'
and the concept of 'acquisition' and the concept of
'children.' There is much uncertainty about the
interpretation of experimental data and a great deal
of controversy surrounding the theories. More
research needs to be done."
Well, this is the kind of paragraph that could be
deleted without loss. Classic prose gives the reader
credit for knowing that many concepts are hard to
define and many controversies are hard to resolve.
The reader is there to see what the writer will do
about it.
Another corollary is to minimize the reflexive
hedging that you see in many kinds of
professionalese. The almost robotic use of fluffy
little words that are jammed into prose to make it
seem as if the writer doesn't really mean what he's
saying: Somewhat, fairly, nearly, seemingly, in
part, relatively, comparatively, predominantly, to
some extent, so to speak, presumably.
And the similar device of the use of shudder quotes
to make it seem as if the writer doesn't actually
mean words in their literal senses. I'll just give
you an example. This is from a letter of
recommendation that I received for a [indiscernible].
She is a "quick study" and has been able to educate
herself in "virtually" any area that interests her.
Well, are we supposed to interpret this as saying
that this young woman is a quick study or that she is
a "quick study," namely, someone who is rumored or
alleged to be a quick study but maybe isn't.
And the virtually, does this mean that there are some
areas that she's interested in that she just hasn't
bothered to educate herself in?
The unthinking use of hedges was brought home to me
when I met a colleague at a conference and I asked
her how she was doing and she pulled out a picture of
her four-year-old daughter and she said, "We
virtually adore her."
Why the compulsive hedging? Well, in many
bureaucracies there is a well-known abbreviation,
CYA, cover your anatomy. But there is an
alternative: "So sue me!" It is often better to be
clear and possibly wrong than fuzzy and not even
Also, a good writer counts on the cooperative nature
of ordinary conversation. Conversation could not
proceed unless there was a certain amount of charity
between reader and writer. If someone says these
days, in the recent years Americans are getting
fatter, you don't interpret that as meaning as every
last member of the 300 million American population
has been getting fatter. You automatically interpret
it as meaning on average or more or less without
explicitly having to say so.
A second feature of classic prose is that the writer
has to keep up the illusion that the reader is seeing
the world rather than just listening to verbiage, and
as a result, there's a classic piece of advice for
writers, avoid cliches like the plague.
And we're all familiar with the writer who says
things like "We needed to keep the ball rolling in
our search for the holy grail, but found that it was
neither a magic bullet nor a slam dunk, so we rolled
with the punches and let the chips fall where they
may while seeing the glass as half full -- it's a
If you simply ladle out one cliche after another, the
reader is forced to turn off their visual cortex and
just process it as blah blah blah. If the reader
then does pay attention, a cliche monger is likely to
inadvertently produce ludicrous images in the form of
mixed metaphors, like this is also from a letter of
recommendation: "Jeff is a Renaissance man, drilling
down to the core issues and pushing the envelope."
Not clear how you can do both. Or, "No one has yet
invented a condom that will knock people's socks
And again, if you use words without being mindful of
the images they convey, you will be eligible for
membership in A.W.F.U.L., Americans Who Figuratively
Use Literally. So it's perfectly fine to say she
literally blushed. It is not as good to say she
literally exploded, and it's very, very bad to say
she literally emasculated him.
Classic prose is about the world. It's not about the
conceptual tools with which we understand the world,
and so it calls for avoiding metaconcepts, that is,
concepts about concepts that are all too familiar in
professional prose, like approach, assumption,
concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level,
model, perspective, process, rule, strategy,
tendency, variable, all of which are almost always
completely dispensable from prose.
So instead of -- this, for example, is by a legal
scholar in the New York Times who writes: "I have
serious doubts that trying to amend the Constitution
would work on an actual level. On the aspirational
level, however, a constitutional amendment strategy
may be more valuable." Which could just as easily
have been stated as, "I doubt that trying to amend
the Constitution would actually succeed, but it may
be valuable to aspire to it."
Or, "It's important to approach the subject from a
variety of strategies, including mental health
assistance but also from a law enforcement
perspective." That is, "When dealing with an
unstable person, we must consult psychiatrists, but
we may also have to inform the police."
Finally, classic prose narrates ongoing events. We
see agents performing actions that affect objects.
Nonclassic prose tends to dignify events and then
refer to the event. Using a dangerous tool of
English grammar called nominalization, turning
something into a noun. There are a variety of ways
in which English allows you to take a perfectly spry
verb and, by adding a suffix like "ation" or "ion" or
"ment," you can embalm it as a lifeless noun.
So instead of competing, you engage in competition.
Instead of organizing something, you bring about the
organization of it.
Helen Sword, an English scholar, refers to them as
"zombie nouns" because they kind of lumber across the
scene without any conscious agent actually directing
an action, and they can turn prose into a night of
the living dead.
Prevention of neurogenesis diminished social
avoidance, meaning when we prevented neurons from
forming, the mice no longer avoided other mice.
Or, subjects were tested under conditions of good to
excellent acoustic isolation; to-wit, we tested the
students in a quiet room.
So characteristic of academic prose is the use of
metaconcepts and nominalizations, that we all can
recognize the humor behind this old editorial cartoon
in which you have a bearded academician explaining
"The reason Verbal SAT scores are at an all-time low.
Incomplete implementation of strategized
programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of
awareness and utilization of communication skills
pursuant to standardized review and assessment of
languaginal development. Any interrogatory
It's not just academics who fall into the habit of
thingifying actions. Politicians do it as well, such
as Texas Governor Rick Perry, who, when a storm
threatened the Republican National Convention said,
"Right now there is not any anticipation that there
will be a cancellation." That is, right now we don't
anticipate that we will have to cancel it.
And corporate consultants. A young man explaining to
a reporter what he did for a living said, "I'm a
digital and social media strategist. I deliver
programs, products, and strategies to our corporate
clients across the spectrum of communications
functions." And when the reporter pressed him about
what he really did, he finally broke down and said,
"I teach big companies how to use Facebook."
And product engineers. Portable generators used to
carry the following warning: "Mild exposure to CO
can result in accumulated damage over time. Extreme
exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing
significant warning symptoms."
Yeah, yeah. And as a result, several hundred
Americans every year would asphyxiate themselves and
their families by running portable generators
More recently, if you buy a portable generator, it
will have this on its sticker: "Using a generator
indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES." Classic prose. So
classic prose can literally be a matter of life and
death. Yes, literally.
Okay. Well, I promise that a better understanding of
language can lead to better writing advice, and let
me give you an example. Another notorious
contributor to zombie prose is the passive voice.
The difference between the dog bit the man, an active
sentence, and the man was bitten by the dog, a
passive sentence.
It has long been observed that the passive voice is
overused by academics. "On the basis of the analysis
which was made of the data which were collected, it
is suggested that the null hypothesis can be
And lawyers: If the outstanding balance is prepaid
in full, the unearned finance charge will be
And of course, political officials. You might
recognize this person, Julia Pierson, the recently
former director of the Secret Service, when called
upon to explain how it is that a man with a knife
managed to vault over the White House fence, run
across the lawn into the White House and get near the
oval -- the President's bedroom, all the time with a
knife and not be stopped until someone finally
tackled him, she explained: "Mistakes were made."
What linguists sometimes call the evasive passive.
And so all the classic guides warn writers from using
the passive voice, such as Strunk and White who say:
"Use the active voice. The active voice is usually
more direct and vigorous than the passive. Many a
tame sentence 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."
Well, I heard some scattered titters through the room
coming from people who realize that in fact this
passage warns against the passive using the passive.
The other obligatory reading for every college
freshman in a writing class is the classic essay by
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, in
which he, too, notes that "[A] mixture of vagueness
and sheer incompetence is the most marked
characteristic of modern English prose." Modern, by
the way, being late 1940s. "I list below various of
the tricks by means of which the work of prose
construction is habitually dodged: The passive voice
is wherever possible used in preference to the
active." A passage that has not one but two
instances of the passive voice warning readers never
to use the passive voice.
So what's going on? Well, the passive could not have
survived in the English language for 1500 years if it
did not serve some purpose, and so why can't we do
without it? It comes down to the very design of
language. You can think of language as an app for
converting a web of knowledge into a string of words.
The writer's knowledge can be modeled as a semantic
network. That's the way cognitive psychologists and
many AI researchers, as you all know, have done it
for 50 or 60 years. That is, a person's knowledge,
to a first approximation, can be thought of as a
number of concepts that are interlinked by various
conceptual and logical relationships: About doer,
done to, is, looks like, and so on.
Well, what happens when you have to take a portion of
this network and transmit it from one mind to
another? Well, you have to code it into a sentence,
which is a linear string of words. By the way, I
should mention -- sorry -- that this fragment of a
semantic network might be a crude approximation of a
person's knowledge of the tragic events of Oedipus
Rex as brought to life by Sophocles in his play of
that name.
But when we convey it, that some of those thoughts to
others, we have to linearize it. Sorry. In
Sophocles' play, Oedipus married his mother and
killed his father, one word after another. That
means that there is an inherent problem in the design
of language, mainly, that the order of words in a
sentence has to do two things at once. On the one
hand, it serves as a code for meaning. It indicates
who did what to whom. But necessarily it presents
some bits of information to the reader before others,
and therefore, it affects how the information is
absorbed by the reader in real time.
In general, the earlier material in the sentence
looks backward. It is the topic. It's what the
reader is looking at. The later material in the
sentence is the focus, the new information that is
being added, what the reader should now notice. And
prose that violates these principles of linear
ordering will feel choppy or disjointed or
This brings us to what the passive is good for.
Namely, it allows the writer to convey the same
semantic information as the active, namely, who did
what to whom, but in a different surface order, one
that allows the writer to start with a done-to rather
than the doer.
So avoid the passive is bad advice if it's offered
across the board. The passive is the better
construction when the done-to is currently the focus
of the reader's mental gaze.
And again, let me give you an example. I'm going to
read a little passage from the Wikipedia plot summary
of Oedipus Rex -- spoiler alert -- from the epiphany,
the climatic scene in which the tragic back story of
Oedipus is gradually revealed.
"A messenger arrives from Corinth. It emerges that
he was formally a shepherd on Mt. Kithaeron, and
during that time he was given a baby. The baby, he
says, was given to him by another shepherd from the
Laius household, who had been told to get rid of the
Now, notice that this passage has three passives in a
row. The passage begins: "A messenger arrives from
Corinth." So we are all now looking at the
messenger. He has entered the stage. Well, it's
natural to use a passive. "He was given a baby."
We're already looking at him.
Well, now we're looking at the baby, and so the next
sentence ought to begin with the baby, and the
passive voice makes that possible. "The baby was
given to the messenger by another shepherd." Well,
now another shepherd is on the stage. Our eyes are
on the other shepherd, and so it's natural to begin
the next sentence with that, and again, the passive
voice makes that possible. "The other shepherd had
been told to get rid of the child." Perfectly
Now, let's say you followed the advice to convert
passives to actives. The passage would read: "A
messenger arrives. It emerges that he was formerly a
shepherd on Mt. Kithaeron, and that during that time
someone gave him a baby. Another shepherd from the
Laius household, he says, whom someone had told to
get rid of a child, gave the baby to him."
Now, I submit that this is not an improvement because
it violates the orderly progression of the reader's
attention from one entity to another. A writer is a
bit like a cinematographer who has to be careful as
to where the camera is pointing.
More generally, English syntax provides writers with
constructions that vary order in the string while
preserving meaning. Oedipus kills Laius. Laius was
killed by Oedipus. It was Laius whom Oedipus killed.
It was Oedipus who killed Laius, and so on, and
writers must choose the construction that introduces
ideas to the reader in the order in which she can
absorb them.
Well, this then does bring us back to the initial
question, if the passive is so indispensable, why is
it so common in bad writing? Well, it's because good
writers narrate a story, advanced by protagonists who
make things happen. Bad writers work backwards from
their own knowledge, writing down ideas in the order
in which they occur to them. They begin with the
outcome of an event, because they know how it turned
out, and then they throw in the cause as an
afterthought and the passive makes that all too easy.
Okay. This brings me to part three, is why do
writers do that? Why is it so hard for writers to
use the resources of language to convey ideas
effectively? My favorite explanation is called the
curse of knowledge, the aspect of our psychology in
which it's hard to imagine what it's like for someone
else not to know something that you do know.
Psychologists also call it mindblindness,
egocentrism, or the hindsight bias.
And a lovely illustration comes from a classic
experiment known to every intro psych student
where -- sometimes called the false belief task -- a
child comes into the lab. You hand him a box of
candies, a box of M&Ms. He opens it and he's
surprised to find that inside it there isn't candies,
but rather, ribbons. So he put the ribbons back in
the box, close it back up again.
You say, well, now another little boy is going to
come to the lab, Jason. What does he think is in the
box? And the child will say ribbons. Even though,
of course, Jason would have no way of knowing it, the
child knows it. He can't imagine what it's like for
someone not to know it.
In fact, if you ask the first child, "What did you
think was in the box when you came into the room?"
The child will say ribbons. He can no longer recover
the state at which he did not know that the box had
been tampered with.
Well, we adults outgrow this stage a little, because
many studies have shown that there are versions of
the Curse of knowledge that apply to grownups. We
attribute our own vocabulary to others, our own
factual knowledge, our own technical skill.
The more experience someone has had a with a gadget,
like a cell phone, the less time they think it will
take for someone else to learn how to use it.
I believe that the curse of knowledge is the chief
contributor to opaque writing, and for that matter,
opaque product design, instructions, and so on,
software interfaces, et cetera. It just doesn't
occur to the writer that readers haven't learned
their jargon, don't know the intermediary steps that
seem too obvious to mention, can't visualize a scene
that is currently in the writer's mind's eye, and so
the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon or
spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details.
And again, I'm going to give you an example. Many
professionals and academics excuse themselves from
bad writing by saying, well, I'm writing for my peers
and they know all of the concepts, so it would only
insult them if I were to spell them out. That is
patently untrue.
I, and I'm sure many of you, repeatedly find yourself
baffled by prose that is actually written
specifically for you, and I'll give you an example of
an article on consciousness from a journal called
Trends in Cognitive Science which is written for
people like me. And here's how it goes: "The slow
and integrative nature of conscious perception is
confirmed behaviorally by observations such as the
'rabbit illusion' and its variants, where the way in
which a stimulus is ultimately perceived is
influenced by poststimulus events arising several
hundreds of milliseconds after the original
Well, I read that and I processed the verbiage, but I
really did not know what it meant, beginning with the
fact that the writer just assumed that everyone would
know what the rabbit illusion was. I've been in this
business for 35 years. I teach undergraduates. I
teach them perception. I'd never heard of the rabbit
So I went to the books and indeed I found there's
something called a cutaneous rabbit illusion that
works as follows: If a person closes their eyes and
then the experimenter taps them three times on the
wrist and then three times on the elbow and then
three times on the shoulder, the person will
experience it as a series of taps running up the
length of their arm like a hopping rabbit.
And, okay, that's interesting because it means that
where you perceive the earlier taps depends on the
location of the later taps. So consciousness does
not track sensation in real time, but it's kind of
edited after the fact to make a continuous
So why didn't they say that? The expression "tap on
the wrist" is no less scientific than "stimulus," and
"tap on the elbow" is no more precise than
"poststimulus event." Indeed, not only is it no less
scientific, it's more scientific because now a peer
scientist can evaluate the argument and decide
whether that that really does show that conscious
perception is slow or integrative as opposed to some
alternative explanation.
My favorite way of summing up the curse of knowledge
comes from an old joke where a man is visiting a
Catskills resort and walks into the dining room, and
he comes across a bunch of retired Borshveldt
[phonetic] comedians talking around a table. So he
sits himself down and one of them says, "37." And
the others break into uproarious laughter. And then
he says, "112," and again, general hilarity. He
can't figure out what's going on. So he asks the guy
next to him, "What's happening here?" The guy says,
"Well, you know, these old-timers have been together
for so long that they all know each other's jokes.
So to save time, they've given every joke a number.
Now all they have to do is recite the number."
The guy says, "That's ingenious. I'll try it." So
he calls out, "44." Stony silence. "87." Everyone
stared at him and no one laughed. He sort of sank
down into his chair and he asked his companion, "What
happened? What did I do wrong? The guy said, "Oh,
it's all in the way you tell it."
How do you exercise the curse of knowledge? Well,
the traditional solution is always keep in mind the
reader over your shoulder; that is, empathize, put
yourself in their shoes, walk a mile in their
moccasins, feel their pain, and so on. Well, that's
okay as far as it goes, but the problem is that none
of us has extrasensory perception, and we're actually
not very good at guessing other people's knowledge
even when we try.
But it is a start, so for what it's worth, I will
share with you the advice. Your readers, your users
know less than you think you do, and unless you at
least try to imagine what it's like to be them,
you're guaranteed to confuse them.
A better solution is to close the loop and show a
draft to a representative reader or user, and you'll
often be surprised to find that what's obvious to you
is not obvious to anyone else. Or, in addition, show
a draft to yourself after some time has passed and
it's no longer familiar. If you're like me, you'll
find yourself thinking, what did I mean by that?
That doesn't follow, and all too often, who wrote
this crap?
And then rewrite, ideally, several times with a
single goal just making the prose understandable to
the reader.
Finally, how should we think about correct usage,
which is the aspect of writing that by far gets the
most attention. Now, there are some usages that are
clearly wrong. When the Cookie Monster says, "Me
want cookie," the reason that even a preschooler will
laugh is that the preschooler knows that Cookie
Monster has made a grammatical error. Likewise,
there would be no humor, such as it is, in Lolcats
such as "I can has cheezburger," unless we sense that
this is violates the rules of English grammar.
"Is our children learning?" Even George W. Bush
acknowledged that this was a grammatical error in a
self-deprecating speech he gave a year later.
On the other hand, there are other alleged errors of
usage that are not so clear, and just to be
nonpartisan, I will show you a Democratic president,
Bill Clinton, who, when running for office in 1992,
had the catchphrase: "Give Al Gore and I a chance to
bring America back." Which some purists would say
contains a grammatical error. This is also known as
the "between you and I" error.
Another Democratic president, Barack Obama, recently
said: "No American should ever live under a cloud of
suspicion just because of what they look like."
Which some English teachers would say contains an
error in number agreement, the plural pronoun "they"
is being forced into agreement with the singular
antecedent "no American," sometimes called the
"singular they" construction.
"To boldly go where no man has gone before," the
famous split infinitive.
"You think you lost your love. Well, I saw her
yesterday. It's you she's thinking of. And she told
me what to say." Ending a sentence with a
And then some of you may have heard of the suave,
urbane, articulate 1970s talk show host Dick Cavett
who, in a recent article in the Times reminiscing
about a college reunion said, "Checking into the
hotel, it was nice to see a few of my old classmates
in the lobby." Anyone? See, spot the grammatical
error in that sentence? Dangling modifier, yes,
Well, these kind of disputed usages have given rise
to something called the language war between the
so-called prescriptivists and descriptivists. Now,
according to this construction, the prescriptivists
are those who prescribe how language -- how people
ought to speak, and their position, they're also
known as the purists, sticklers, pedants, peevers,
snobs, snoots, nitpickers, traditionalists, language
police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis, and Gotcha!
Gang, according to whom the rules of usage are
objectively correct. To obey them is to uphold
standards of excellence. To flout them is to dumb
down literate culture, degrade the language, and
hasten the decline of civilization.
Then on the other side, there are the descriptivists,
those who describe how people do speak who believe
that the rules of usage are nothing more than the
secret handshake of the ruling class, the people
should be liberated to write however they please.
Well, there are reasons to think that this is a
really pseudo-controversy, a false dichotomy. If it
were really true, then prescriptivists would insist
that the lyrics to "She loves you" should have been
"it's you of whom she's thinking." And
descriptionists would say that there is nothing wrong
with "I can has cheezburger," which can't be right,
otherwise it wouldn't even have a claim to being
So I think we need a more sophisticated way of
thinking about usage than this false dichotomy that
has been ginned up by various journalists.
Well, what are rules of usage? They're certainly not
an objective fact about the world that you could go
out and measure with an instrument like a physical
scientist. They are not a theorem of logic that you
could prove. Nor, contrary to popular opinion, are
they officially regulated by dictionaries. It's not
as if there every year the dictionaries get around a
table and legislate on what is correct or incorrect
in English.
I can speak with some authority here because I'm the
chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage
Dictionary, and when I first joined, I asked the
editors, so how do you guys decide what goes into the
dictionary? And they said, we pay attention to the
way people use language. In other words, when it
comes to what's correct in English, there's no one in
charge. The lunatics are running the asylum.
So what are rules of usage? They are tacit, evolving
conventions. Convention is a way of doing something
that has no inherent advantage other than the fact
that everyone else is doing it the same way. Paper
currency is a classic example. There's nothing
valuable about a green piece of paper other than the
fact that everyone else treats it as valuable.
Or driving on the right. There is no inherent reason
to drive on the right as opposed to the left, but on
the other hand, there's a very good reason to do it
the same way everyone else is doing it, as
illustrated in a joke in which a man is driving to
work and he gets a cell phone call from his wife, and
his wife says, "Oh, be careful, Honey. I've been
listening to the radio and they say that there is a
maniac out there driving in the wrong direction on
the freeway." And he says, "One maniac?
hundreds of them."
There are
Unlike the traffic rules, though, the conventions of
language are tacit. No one ever decides. They
emerge as a rough consensus within a community of
careful writers without explicit deliberate,
agreement, or legislation, and they're evolving. The
consensus may, indeed, does change over time. "To
contact" starts out life as a bit of business jargon.
It then becomes standard.
So should writers follow these rules? And the answer
is it depends. There's some rules that just extend
the logic of everyday grammar to more complicated
cases. "Is our children learning?" How do we know
that that's an error? Why did George W. Bush good
naturedly concede that it's an error? Well, because
it's simply a version of "our children is learning,"
and everyone agrees that "our children is learning"
is an error; therefore, the inverted version must
also be an error.
I think you guys have all seen this thing here? The
green wiggly line. In my experience, most of the
Microsoft grammar checker green wiggly lines flag
errors of agreement and actually do so quite well.
Likewise, here is another appearance of the green
wiggly line. "The impact of the cuts have not been
felt yet." This, too, when you think about it,
actually is -- does violate a rule of English grammar
because the -- it should be "The impact of the cuts
has not been felt." The problem is that the writer
was distracted by the adjacent word "cuts" in the
plural sitting right next to the verb. The verb
should agree with the subject of the sentence, not
with the noun adjacent to it.
As you can see, if you simply leave out the
subordinate prepositional phrase and if you say, "the
impact have not been felt yet," that just pops out as
an error and that is why we all agree that "the
impact of the cuts have not been felt" is likewise an
Another case is that many rules make important
semantic distinctions. If you thank someone for the
fulsome introduction they gave you, you are not
complimenting either the introducer or yourself
because "fulsome" does not mean full, complete, rich.
It means insincere, excessively unctuous or
unnecessarily flattering.
Likewise, if something is -- if you call something
simplistic as a way of complimenting it, you will
make a similar blunder. "Simplistic" clearly means
overly simple or naïve.
And if something is -- has much merit, you should not
call it meretricious. Look it up. You'll see why
In general, it is a good idea, when choosing a word,
not to simply assume that if it's a familiar word
with some fancy schmancy suffixes at the end, it's a
posh or hoity-toity way to refer to the same thing.
In general, words with different endings mean
different things, and you will get yourself in
trouble if you use them in a way that your readers
will not expect.
At the same time -- oops. Yes. So you will be in
danger of courting the response that Inigo Montoya
gave to Vizzini in The Princess Bride after Vizzini
repeatedly used the word "inconceivable" for things
that just happened. He said, "You keep using that
word. I do not think it means what you think it
At the same time, not every pet peeve, bit of
grammatical folklore, or a dimly remembered lesson
from Miss Thistlebottom's classroom is a legitimate
rule of usage, and when scholars track down these
rules, they find many of them violate grammatical
logic, are routinely flouted by the best writers, and
have always been flouted by the best writers.
A nice example being singular they. Recently a
language grump wrote that this is part of a
conspiracy by feminists to violate the English
language to give people a way to refer to people of
indeterminate gender and that we should all go back
to the crystalline prose of Jane Austen. Whoops. In
an essay called "Everyone Loves their Jane Austen," a
literally scholar notes that she used singular they
no fewer than 87 times in her prose, such as
"Everybody began to have their vexation."
You think you
as dreams are
shouldn't end a sentence with a
Well, maybe then you could improve on
prose when he wrote, "We are such stuff
made on."
And the same is true of split infinitives, dangling
participles, between you and I, and many other
alleged errors.
Indeed, it's not just that you shouldn't bother to
obey bogus rules. If you obey them, you can make
your prose worse. Take this sentence from a press
release from Harvard University, my employer. "David
Rockefeller has pledged $100 million to increase
dramatically learning opportunities for Harvard
undergraduates."Now, I don't know what language that
is. It ain't English.
What happened was the writer twisted himself into a
pretzel to avoid the split infinitive, "to
dramatically increase learning opportunities," and in
obeying this completely bogus rule, turned his own
sentence into word salad.
And it gets even worse, because obeying bogus rules
can actually lead to a crisis of governance,
literally. In 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts, who
was a famous stickler for grammar, torturing his law
clerks and associates by sending back everything they
wrote with lots of grammatical errors circled, he was
in charge of administering the oath of office to
Barack Obama, inaugurating him as President, and what
he -- the wording he should have used, as stipulated
by the Constitution, were: "I, Barack Obama, do
solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the
office of president of the United States."
Roberts abandoned his strict constructionism,
unilaterally amended the Constitution, unsplit a
split verb, and had him say, "I, Barack Obama, do
solemnly swear that I will execute the office of
president to the United States faithfully."
Now, not only is this not a stylistic improvement
over what the framers originally framed, but it led
to possible questions about the legitimacy of the
transition of power, and to avoid kind of, you know,
Berther's [phonetic] on steroids questioning whether
he really was president, they had to repeat the oath
of office in a private ceremony later that afternoon.
So how should a careful writer distinguish the
legitimate rules of usage from the bogus ones? And
the answer is unbelievably simple. Look them up. If
you look up split infinitive in Merriam-Webster's
Unabridged Dictionary, what it will say is, "It's all
right to split an infinitive in the interest of
clarity. Since clarity is the usual reason for
splitting, this advice means merely that you can
split them whenever you need to."
And you'll get the same advice from the American
Heritage Dictionary, the Encarta World English
Dictionary, the Random House Dictionary, and so on.
Contrary to most people's beliefs, modern
dictionaries and style manuals do not ratify pet
peeves, grammatical folklore, or bogus rules. They
will not settle barroom bets in favor of the pedant
or stickler because they are based on evidence on how
great writers write. When there are marginal cases,
they will be explicitly discussed in usage notes
indicating what the controversy is and what a reader
can expect.
So they are not a kind of backup for smartypants
Also, correct usage should be kept in perspective.
Though I think it is well worth knowing what the
prescriptively ordained rules are, they are the least
important part of good writing. They pale in
significance behind classic style, overcoming the
curse of knowledge, to say nothing of factual
diligence and coherent ideas and arguments.
And not even the most irksome errors are signs of the
decline of language. And this is beautifully
illustrated by Randall Munroe in an xkcd cartoon in
which a purist is visited by a ghost in his sleep who
brings a cautionary vision of things to come. This
is the future, and this is the future if you give up
the fight over the word "literally." As you can see,
they are exactly the same.
So to sum up, modern linguistics and cognitive
science, I argue, provide better ways of enhancing
our prose. A model of prose communication,
specifically classic style, language used as a window
onto the world; an understanding of the way language
works, in particular that language has to convert a
web of thoughts into a string of words; a diagnosis
of why good prose is so hard to write; namely, the
curse of knowledge; and a way to make sense of rules
of correct usage; namely, as tacit, evolving
Thank you very much.
>> Steven Pinker:
Any interrogatory verbalizations?
>>: Picking a really petty detail, you seem to care
about subject/verb number agreement, but
pronoun/antecedant agreement you're not so worried
about or you're just saying, no, they is it now
and ->>: Yes. The subject/verb agreement is a process of
grammar. It's within a single clause.
Pronoun/antecedent agreement is much more fluid, and
moreover, I think it's actually a mistake to call
"they" in -- a so-called singular "they" construction
a plural pronoun. It is a -- so if you say everyone
return to their seats or no American should be under
a cloud of suspicion because of what they look like,
"they" is not referring to a group of individuals.
"They" is basically a bound variable.
Everyone return to their seats means for all X,
everyone return to X's seat. X return to X's seat.
And that's really what it's doing. And so I think
it's actually a bit of a misnomer even to call it a
failure of agreement of number. It doesn't really
have a number in the classic sense.
And I have a discussion in the book of how a large
number of usage controversies come from the fact that
from a kind of bug in the design of English; namely,
English forces you to dichotomize all entities, all
things you ever want to refer to, into the two
categories, one and more than one.
And logically speaking, there are many, many things
that you might want to talk about for which there is
no answer to that question, like zero. Is zero -- so
for none, some people say that none has to be used in
a singular. None of them is coming as opposed to
none of them are coming. Well, none refers to zero.
Is zero one or is zero more than one? There's no
answer to that.
Or likewise, a bound variable. Does X refer to one
thing or to many things? Well, neither. It just is
a way of carrying over a reference to something in a
logical expression. And a huge number, probably 25
different usage controversies come over the fact that
semantically the world doesn't come in one, more than
one, but many English constructions seem to force you
in that direction. Yes.
>>: Writing's been going on for a very long time and
I'm wondering what -- whether, on balance, you think
that writing is getting better; and secondly, how
much do you think your book is going to move the
>> Steven Pinker: It's hard to answer that question
just because there's no one thing called writing,
because there's everything from, you know, notes
scrawled on a napkin that you leave for your roommate
to state of the union address or a funeral oration.
I don't think that in general writing has declined.
There's no reason to think that it has. More people
are writing more things than ever before. This has
occurred in several pulses, both with the expansion
of literacy.
It used to be 75 years ago that a large percentage of
the population never entered high school and they
were functionally illiterate. Fewer and fewer people
are functionally illiterate.
Surveys of student term papers have shown that
there's been no decline of quality in terms of number
of errors per page. And there's a lot of good prose
around. It's -- and I'm often, even though there's a
lot of bad prose around, I mean, there's a lot of,
you know, ranting of by trolls and below the comment
line. On the other hand, you read a typical product
review on Amazon or a Wikipedia entry and it's pretty
clear and surprisingly few errors of grammar,
spelling, punctuation.
I think one possible change is that it's -- I haven't
seen a quantitative study of this, but often the best
language seems to be more colorless and limp than
some of the language of, you know, a century or a
couple of centuries ago. You read Adam Smith or
David Hume or Edmund Burke, granted, you're picking
kind of the greatest hits of that era, but there's a
vividness and a willingness to use metaphor literary
flourishes that you are less likely to see today.
I think my hunch is -- so, you know, Hume might refer
to a particle of the dove kneaded into our bosom
together with the elements of the wolf and the
serpent, and now we would say something like, humans
have some pro-social tendencies together with
It may be because we have so many technical terms
available to us that we don't reach for the metaphor
and that will drain prose of some of its vitality,
even though it kind of makes it more -- less
effortful to convey abstract ideas.
>>: What are your favorite examples of modern
>> Steven Pinker: My favorite examples of modern
writing? I think there's a lot of good writing, but
I think that we're in a golden age of science
writing, just to give one example, and I think we've
got, you know, great writers like Richard Dawkins and
Robert Sapolski and popularizers of mathematics, like
Steven Strogatz and Jordan Ellenburg and John Allen
Brian Greene, who I quoted, doesn't use kind of
flowery ornate language, but I consider the ability
to convey abstruse concepts without dumbing down the
content to be a quality of good writing.
And philosophers who kind of affiliate themselves
with the sciences, like Daniel Dennett, like Colin
McGinn are also I think quite effective writers. So
I don't want to say that's the only kind of good
writing out there, but that's one example where I
don't think anyone can complain about the quality of
>>: So your two most recent works, The Sense of
Style and Better Angels ->> Steven Pinker:
>>: It seems that the germs for the idea were based
in common misconceptions, and my question if that's
true, is that just a coincidence or is that a method
you use to find subjects that you find bookworthy?
>> Steven Pinker: Yeah. Well, bookworthy only in
the sense that if it was already believed, widely
believed, then there wouldn't be any value in saying
something new. I don't like the style of journalism
or writing of everything you know is wrong. That has
become a kind of gimmick or a hook that I think is,
you know, well past its use by date. So -- but I
wanted there to be something that is newsworthy or of
Another common thread between The Better Angels of
Our Nature and The Sense of Style is that in both
cases I go against a current that says that
everything is getting worse, whether it be violence
in one case, or the quality of prose in another.
I think there is a cognitive illusion that we are
prone to that things are getting worse that comes
from a number of sources. One of them is as you get
older, you start to notice certain things and they
start to bother you more, and we have a tendency to
externalize that change and assume that it's the
world that's getting worse rather than ourselves
becoming more perceptive.
Also, as Thomas Hobbes noted, there's a widespread
habit among writers and intellectuals to say that
things are getting worse because if you say that
things are bad now, you're implicitly putting down
your competitors, your rivals because, as he put it,
we compete with the living, not with the dead.
So things used to be better, and I'm noticing it, it
means I'm better than you guys because you are an
example of the bad stuff I'm writing about. And I
think that is a pernicious habit of pundits and
commentators and social critics. And maybe there is
some annoyance with that kind of one-upmanship that
motivated me to write these books.
>>: So to what extent do you think what you said
over here applied to the scientists whose
[indiscernible] English the second language, for
>> Steven Pinker: How would it apply to use of
English as a second language?
>> Steven Pinker: Well a lot of things are just
carryover, such as being concrete, being visual,
being vivid, looking things up, all the more so, for
English as a second language. So I think a lot would
carry over, yeah.
I'm sorry. I forgot to answer the question do I
think that I will move the needle. Who knows? I
really -- I like to think so, but it would be
presumptuous to predict that I will. Yes.
>>: I have a question online actually. Given that
we have so many people with books, I think we'll stop
with my question. There is a bunch online. I get to
do that. So thanks for the great talk.
Do you observe a drastic change in the usage of
English language with the growing number of
international English speakers in terms of slangs and
>> Steven Pinker: Yeah. Not really. The question
is is there -- has there been a noticeable change in
the English language from the fact that basically
English has gone global. There are many Englishes.
There's Indian English and Singapore English and so
I think you would see that in local media, but I
don't think that it -- I don't see a lot of signs
that it's propagating back to the mother ship, to,
say, the New York Times or The Guardian or forums of
the English mainstream, and which is not to say that
there aren't some innovations because languages,
especially English, are always scooping up new terms,
borrowing from their neighbors. And from various
specialties and walks of life there are terms that
have entered the English mainstream from horseracing,
you know, like to jockey, from sailing, taking you
tack, and it is inevitable that there will be ones
both from the world of tech and from other dialects
of English, just because English has always been
eclectic and opportunistic, but I don't see much
evidence of, say, common expressions of, say, Indian
English or Singapore English swimming upstream and
changing American English. I mean, maybe one or two,
but it's not a big process, as far as I can tell.
Well, thank you so much, Steven.
>> Steven Pinker:
all of you.
My pleasure.
Thanks to
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