Monthly Archives: April 2015

Unnatural acts



Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle

I still remember reading Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct in the old reading room of the Suzzallo Library. It was in 1994, and I was well along in a PhD program studying language and literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. The book takes as  its subject one of those basic questions we have been asking together this semester–in this case, how it is we might learn, speak, and understand language. At the time, I had been studying the philosophy of language, and was also reading writers working with the assumption that language is a cultural artifact that we learn, as Pinker put it, “the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works” (18). But as Pinker would argue, a three-year old is “a grammatical genius,” and a “preschooler’s tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual or the most state-of-the-art computer language system, and the same applies to all healthy human beings, even the notorious syntax-fracturing professional athlete and the, you know, like, inarticulate teenage skateboarder” (19). As a recovering professional athlete and, further back, a professional skateboarder, I did not take any offense. For I found myself engaged by a more biologically grounded theory of language acquisition written by a cognitive neuroscientist with a knack for speaking about language to anyone interested in how language works. Little did I know at the time that with two children on the way I would get a first-hand education in language as a kind of instinct that is hard wired into the human genome.

“Writing is an unnatural act.” The sentence that opens chapter 2 of the The Sense of Style (derived from a passage in Darwin’s 1871 The Descent of Man) appears in the earlier book as well. “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak,” Darwin says, “as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.”  Writing is also above all–and this is where the plot thickens, as we discussed today–“an act of pretense.” What we talked about was the problem all writers face: we must imagine our audience. We must create a clear conception (a fiction) of who we might be speaking to (or who, as Pinker puts it, we are pretending to speak to when we commit words to a page). Your recipients are both invisible and inscrutable, even if you define them as a group. There is no body (no sparkle in the eyes, no gesturing with the hands, no vocal range, no posture). But there is mind. And so we are back at Pinker’s simple definition of style: “the effective use of words to engage the human mind” (2). All of this might even take you back to our earlier question about the author and the persona that we cannot help but make whenever we are writing ourselves into words.

Quotation Marks

For years I have enjoyed the idiosyncratic ways signage works. When I was living in India, for example, I kept a series of blog posts called “Signs of India.”


High above the capital city of Leh in Ladakh


Parking garage, Symbiosis Law School, Pune

Among the most perplexing patterns in signage closer to home is the myriad uses of quotation marks. Once you notice this, the world will never look the same. For years, Bethany Keeley-Jonker has been having a lot of fun with the ways we use quotation marks. Her “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks is great fun. She has also published a book that will make you laugh out loud again and again: The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks: A Celebration of Creative Punctuation (Chronicle 2010).

bathrooms    outside wouldyou

On Monday next week Bethany will give a talk, “Blogging as Hobby, Business and Social Action in a Changing Media Environment,” at 4 in Morrison 204. Please consider coming to hear her speak. And on Tuesday, Bethany, who is currently an assistant professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, will join us as we continue our discussions of language and style.

What is Style?

Ok, you think, with more than ten weeks studying language and style, I have a few answers to that question. And in fact, you then think to yourself, I just read the “Prologue”  of Steven Pinker’s most recent book, The Sense of Style, in which he says that the word style is, after all, no less than “the effective use of words to engage the human mind” (2). Wait, what?

Pinker first says what his book is not: a reference manual or a remedial guide. Rather he envisions his audience, in his words, “people who know how to write and want to write better” (7). That would describe well most college students (and to be sure every student in this class). For you all know how to write. And if indeed you are interested in the second part, writing better, then you will appreciate Pinker’s departure from the prescriptive approach to language that underwrites most style manuals. Here is how he describes the approach that by now you will surely recognize. “Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority,” he writes, “but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn” (3).

In his “Prologue” there is a helpful answer to the question of why we might need another style guide, in his formulation, a style guide for the twentieth century:

Today. . . . We have an understanding of grammatical phenomena which goes well beyond the traditional taxonomies based on crude analogies with Latin. We have a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading: the waxing and waning of memory load as readers comprehend a passage, the incrementing of their knowledge as they come to grasp its meaning, the blind alleys that can lead them astray. We have a body of history and criticism which can distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings. By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts. (7)

For Pinker, style is the effective use of words to engage the mind. He argues that style matters because we all spend too much time trying to make sense of language that is neither engaging nor worth anyone’s valuable time. Style is also a tool for earning trust, too. The example Pinker offers is a technology executive explaining why he rejects applications riddled with errors. “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it’s, then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with” (qtd. in Pinker 9). Ultimately style, finally and not incidentally, gives pleasure to a reader.

On Tuesday we will talk about your initial responses to Pinker and his thinking in the “Prologue” as well as in Chapter 1 “Good Writing: Reverse-Engineering Good Prose as the Key to Developing a Writerly Ear.” As we prepare for your discussion leading in small groups, please come to class with no fewer than three passages for the class to discuss. I would like to step back and see what you can do before adding my own sense of what Pinker might help us to see.