I was at a social gathering a few weeks ago when I mentioned that linguist Steven Pinker has a new style guide coming out in September. My story of Pinker and his thoughts on grammar fell flat, though that was my fault. Broaching the ins and outs of split infinitives on a Saturday night was probably not the way to go.
In a nutshell, Pinker tries to split the difference between prescriptivists and descripivists. Grammarians and editors who fall into the prescriptivist camp believe that there are rigid rules to follow in writing and that deviation should be avoided at all costs. Yes, language evolves, they allow, but change should be slow and cautious. Descriptivists take a more relaxed approach and believe that language is more flexible and fluid. Language, they argue, is whatever people say it is. It is more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it. You can read more about it yourself; the London Guardian published an excerpt on Friday.
Ironically people generally–and lazily–call Pinker a descriptivist, which I think misses the point. His whole argument is that good communication is the goal and that style is an important part of the process. Otherwise why would he waste his time writing a book on usage? The point is to communicate effectively without being a prig.
I am looking forward to Pinker’s book, which will be released in September. Writing well and clearly is important. I wrote about this a few years back. Like Pinker, I too fall in the middle area between presriptivist and descriptivist. Standards matter. There is nothing more frustrating than reading something–an email, text message, newspaper article, whatever–in which the meaning is vague or unclear. It cannot be a total free-for-all. At the same time, we should not become totally captive to the rules, as if they exist just for themselves. The idea is to understand the rules of style and grammar well enough to be able to break them occasionally when necessary.