Friday, 4 September 2015

Steven Pinker at the Royal Institution

I went to a talk by Steven Pinker to promote his book, The Sense of Style. It was held at the Royal Institution, which is a science institution and this book is probably the least scientific thing Pinker has ever written, but still. I went along because although I'm now enough of a linguist to know that Steven Pinker is not some kind of god, his book The Language Instinct is still indirectly the reason I'm now a linguist (I read it aged 15 or so and found it fascinating, and that was my first introduction to linguistics). I took my copy along to sign and he very graciously did so despite me not buying a copy of the one he was plugging.

The talk itself will be available to watch on the Ri channel so I needn't summarise it too thoroughly. Pinker was a very entertaining speaker, with lots of jokes that most of the audience didn't seem to have heard before (I had heard them but still laughed because he tells them well). He began with the standard 'everyone has always said language is degenerating' bit, and the 'look how silly most style advice is'. So far, so expected. But the interesting part was when he got onto his own advice.

Digression: style guides serve one useful purpose, which is to ensure consistency within a particular publication. So the Guardian, for example, has a style guide, and it means that the writing of many different people published in the Guardian follows the same rules (usually). It's a slightly different style from the New York Times, but that too is internally consistent. Everyone knows the rules are arbitrary to some extent (else they'd all be the same), but the important thing is to follow the ones for whoever you're writing for. Therefore, style guides that lay out pernickety rules as if they're gospel are never going to be useful. They just cater for nervous writers who think there is a right way to do things that they need to know. People who think they need style guides really just need to read more and to have more confidence in their command of language, not to be told they're doing it wrong.

So this was why I thought it was odd that Pinker had done a style guide at all: what makes him think that his advice is any more likely to stand the test of time than Strunk and White's, now hopelessly outdated? While he did have some arbitrary peeves (he seems not to like the intensifier use of literally, for example, which is currently 'wrong' but very common and no doubt on its way to being unremarkable), his main focus was on the big picture. This is unusual in style guide land and, I would guess, more along the lines of what you'd get if you took a writing course (I've never taken one so I don't know, but I'm assuming they don't teach you not to split infinitives). But developing a good, readable, accessible style is of course much more what 'style guides' should help with, rather than minor grammar issues.

He promised that there would be insights from cognitive science and linguistics. I'm not sure how much there was from linguistics in the talk (perhaps there was, and I missed it as it's too familiar to me?) but his main point was that a good writer uses 'classic prose' style. I'd never heard this term before, but having now googled it a little bit, it seems that it's related to something called 'plain style'. I'm not totally clear on what each is - either classic style is a fancier version of plain style, or else it's plain style with some sophisticated thought. Either way, classic style apparently has clarity as its main aim. This is obviously a very good aim. Pinker criticised 'academese' among others as being very verbose and not at all clear, and much of it is, but I always aim for simplicity and clarity and encourage simplicity for the sake of clarity in my students' work. The focus is on the thing being shown and guiding the reader with not too much hedging, narrating a story.

The cognitive science part came when he compared this to the idea of knowing what someone else knows (theory of mind, illustrated by the Smarties tube task or the Sally-Anne task). Bad writers, he said, can't forget that just because they know some jargon or fact doesn't mean that others also know it. Good writers are better at putting themselves in other people's shoes and bringing the reader along with them.

This was pretty cool, and also linked into a hoary old chestnut of style advice: passive voice. He demonstrated how narrating a story means that sometimes it's better to use active and sometimes passive, so it's silly to say never to use passive. But he also said that passive voice is more common in bad writing. Why? Because bad writers work backwards from their own knowledge and don't properly tell a story in order, beginning from the position of not knowing something.

I hope I haven't spoilt all the good bits of the book. I'm putting it on my reading lists, as I think it'll be useful for students. Their 'curse of knowledge' is different, though: rather than being unable to forget that they know something and wrongly assuming their reader does too, they are unable to forget that their reader does know the material and feel as though they don't need to explain it. And although I didn't feel exactly that I learnt something, as such, the talk did make some subconscious knowledge conscious and that always makes it easier to apply it. But don't analyse the writing in this blog post because I publish these totally unedited (because time) so the style is bound to be all over the place.

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