Steven Pinker-Mark Halpern Exchange
Part 1, 10 March 1997
as posted on the

Atlantic Unbound “Post & Riposte” Site

Steven Pinker responds to Mark Halpern's A War That Never Ends:

Mark Halpern and I disagree less than readers of his article are led to believe. I never tried to present “arguments against laws governing language usage,” much less “rules [proposed] for the sake of clarity and richness of communication,” or rules with “support from historical scholarship.” The point of “Mavens” is that many prescriptive rules hurt, not help, clarity and richness of communication, and many have no support from historical scholarship.

Indeed, if Halpern believes (1) that prescriptive rules “are ordinary man-made rules, not divine commandments or scientific laws … [and] like all man-made things, will need continual review and revision,” (2) that clarity and richness are the ultimate goals of prescriptions on writing and public speaking, and (3) that it is essential to distinguish descriptive from prescriptive rules, then he agrees with the main points I tried to make in “Mavens.” But many mavens and commentators do not agree with Halpern and me; they are the ones I tried to persuade. Halpern asks rhetorically, “is anyone still worrying about ‘ain’t,’ or the splitting of infinitives?” The answer is yes! For example, The New Republic published a letter that professed to be shocked by my defense of the split infinitive, and much of the outrage following the recent “Ebonics” proposal was specifically directed at the use of non-standard forms such as “ain’t.”

There is, nonetheless, a real disagreement on one point. Halpern writes that “what linguistic scientists have been doing in this century … has absolutely no relevance to the … issues that we are talking about when we discuss usage.” Absolutely no relevance? I beg to disagree! In “Mavens” I showed how an ignorance of linguistics and a refusal of many mavens to think analytically about language has led to botched, uninsightful, or downright incorrect discussions about the logic of English constructions. From “flied out” in baseball to “Everyone returned to their seats” to “pickpocketings,” even a smidgen of linguistics allows one to understand what is going on in a far more satisfying and insightful way than ex cathedra pronouncements. How can one improve the clarity and richness of usage without understanding the basic facts and logic of English? The analogy between linguistics-versus-usage and biology-versus-animal-shows is apt. No animal breeder can afford to be ignorant of Mendel’s laws.

A final, though minor point. The Samuel Johnson quote was included not as an argument about the ignobility of preventing language change, but as an argument about the futility of preventing language change (even in cases where I myself feel grumpy about the change). I stopped the quote short because it would have been unseemly to expose Johnson in what looks like an incoherent argument. If prescribing usage is like “lashing the wind” or pushing “an elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years,” why should we make the struggle? And if tongues “have a natural tendency to degeneration” (as opposed to change), how did Johnson manage to craft such a beautiful passage? The English tongue had been “degenerating” for over a millennium, mavenry was in its infancy, and, of course, the first good dictionary was in the reader’s hands.


Steven Pinker-Mark Halpern Exchange
Part 2, 11 March 1997
as posted on the
Atlantic Unbound “Post & Riposte” Site


Mark Halpern responds to Steven Pinker:

Steven Pinker tells me that we’re not that far apart: he’s not against all rules, just bad ones, and not against all mavens, just foolish ones. Hard to disagree, so far.

But then he picks up my rhetorical question, “is anyone still worrying about ‘ain’t’, or the splitting of infinitives?”, and assures me that the answer is yes! —an unnamed letter writer to the New Republic, it seems, was worried about ‘ain’t’, and so were some equally nameless people who were outraged by the Ebonics panic of a few weeks back. This kind of reply makes me feel that the chasm between Mr. Pinker and me is deeper and wider than even I first thought. I asked my rhetorical question in exactly the same way that I might have asked, who now thinks that the sun travels around the earth? Or, who now tries to build perpetual motion machines? And to those questions, too, there could be a factual, positive answer: there are some people who still believe the former, and some who are trying the latter.

But we were talking about the mavens—people like Bill Safire, John Simon, Jacques Barzun—not Crazy Freddie, the town nitwit. So when Mr. Pinker thinks to refute me by dredging up Freddie, I wonder if he and I are inhabiting the same intellectual universe. We prescriptivists, or mavens, or whatever Mr. Pinker wants to call us, dealt with such things long ago: see Fowler (1926) on split infinitives, and as for ‘ain’t,’ none of us is in the least interested in castigating the few who still say it; we’d be more likely to treat them as we would the last remaining dodos than as a menace to linguistic correctness.

Even Mr. Pinker, however, agrees that we have one real point of difference: I say that what linguistic scientists do when they are doing their science has absolutely no bearing on questions of good usage, and Mr. Pinker begs most energetically to differ. But although he writes with evident passion, he adduces no evidence of the relevance of linguistic science to such questions, he simply asks (rhetorically) “How can one improve the clarity and richness of usage without understanding the basic facts and logic of English?” And these basic facts, of course, are available only through linguistic science—a point he regards as so evident as not even needing to be stated.

The actuality, as I sketched it in my original paper—the point was diminished or lost altogether in the paper as printed in The Atlantic—is that many of us mavens issue pronouncements on usage that are quite valid in themselves, but which we then, foolishly, try to embellish with a little linguistic finery. Then the academic linguists, or their allies in the Psychology Department, pounce on us triumphantly, showing that our linguistic knowledge is shallow or just plain wrong—and in the noise they make celebrating their triumph, what is frequently lost is the simple truth that the mavens’ original point was well taken. Example: maven corrects someone who misuses “disinterested” to mean “uninterested,” but makes the mistake of saying or implying that that meaning has always been wrong. Then Mr. Pinker or someone like him jumps all over us, pointing out that in the 18th century, “uninterested” is just what “disinterested” meant. Linguists everywhere rejoice at this apparent squelching of the enemy, and bad writers are confirmed in their bad practice, and their good opinion of themselves.

What neither Mr. Nunberg nor Mr. Pinker has shown, nor can show, is how linguistic science can tell us how educated people of today should write; that is determined not by science, but by wide reading, tact, discrimination, good taste. All that linguistic science can tell us is that the reasons we mavens sometimes foolishly offer for our judgments, in an attempt to buttress ‘mere opinion’ with scientific support, are (sometimes) wrong. And those mavens who do this deserve the ridicule they often get, as I said in my paper—but this does not affect the validity of their judgments. If Mr. Pinker thinks that linguistic science can settle questions of usage, let him produce one good example—I found none in his book, nor in Mr. Nunberg’s article.

Mr. Pinker tries to defend his disastrous analogy of mavens/cat fanciers versus linguistic scientists/mammalian biologists by changing the terms: now it’s “breeders” he wants in place of “fanciers.” No good, Mr. Pinker; your original terms were the right ones, and if they now serve to condemn you, too bad. Breeders certainly need to know a little genetics (and they commonly do); fanciers are like mavens in being connoisseurs of the results of the breeding process, and not themselves breeders.

Finally, Mr. Pinker raises “A final, though minor, point.” Final, yes; minor, no. A most important point, demonstrating that outside his profession Mr. Pinker is a mere layman, meddling with things he doesn’t understand. In discussing his lengthy but nevertheless strangely truncated quotation from Samuel Johnson, Mr. Pinker tells us that he “stopped the quote short because it would have been unseemly to expose Johnson in what looks like an incoherent argument.” This is priceless: Mr. Pinker is protecting Samuel Johnson’s reputation for intellectual rigor, and by suppressing a passage in which poor Johnson falters!

Mr. Pinker, Johnson was not, in the pages you quote from the preface to the Dictionary, offering an argument, incoherent or otherwise; he was writing dramatic prose—something far closer to a play, a poem, or a novel that to simple exposition of ideas. He begins by telling us that, at the outset, he had hoped that his Dictionary would serve to stabilize the language; but that as time went on, he came to despair of its having that effect. But at the end, the great warrior rallies himself and calls upon us all—himself included—to continue the good fight, and struggle on, whatever the odds.

This is not logical incoherence, Mr. Pinker, it is dramatic literature, in which the progress of the emotions is charted, with all its ups and downs. Your belief that you have detected logical contradiction here—not to mention your attempt to suppress the evidence of it by omitting the rhetorical and emotional climax—are absurd; the only way in which I can help your reputation is to point out that you are a mere psychologist, and not one from whom anyone should expect understanding of the life of the mind.

I cannot avoid speculating, I admit, on how you would deal with the logical contradiction in words Samuel Beckett puts into the mouth of one of his characters: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (from the novel The Unnamable) Which of these contradictory statements, I wonder, would you suppress in order to protect Beckett’s reputation?

The day after the above was posted, I posted the following:

Reading over the response I posted yesterday to Steven Pinker’s message, I realize that in the passage beginning “the only way I can help your reputation…” I got carried away, and made personal and uncalled-for remarks. I apologize to Mr. Pinker, and hope he will not be discouraged from continuing our conversation by my momentary (I hope) lapse from civility.


Steven Pinker-Mark Halpern Exchange
Part 3, 12 March 1997
as posted on the
Atlantic Unbound “Post & Riposte” Site


Steven Pinker responds to Mark Halpern:

1. Halpern writes:

But then he picks up my rhetorical question, “is anyone still worrying about ‘ain’t’, or the splitting of infinitives?”, and assures me that the answer is yes! —an unnamed letter writer to the New Republic, it seems, was worried about ‘ain’t’, and so were some equally nameless people who were outraged by the Ebonics panic of a few weeks back. This kind of reply makes me feel that the chasm between Mr. Pinker and me is deeper and wider than even I first thought. I asked my rhetorical question in exactly the same way that I might have asked, who now thinks that the sun travels around the earth? Or, who now tries to build perpetual motion machines? And to those questions, too, there could be a factual, positive answer: there are some people who still believe the former, and some who are trying the latter.

But we were talking about the mavens—people like Bill Safire, John Simon, Jacques Barzun—not Crazy Freddie, the town nitwit. So when Mr. Pinker thinks to refute me by dredging up Freddie, I wonder if he and I are inhabiting the same intellectual universe.

The letter to The New Republic (which referred to split infinitives, incidentally, not “ain’t”) was written by an English professor, not a town nitwit, and I offered it as an example—a publicly accessible example of an opinion expressed in the sheaves of letters from non-nitwits that I received in response to my New Republic pieces and The Language Instinct. More pointedly, I can personally attest that copy-editors in dozens of scholarly journals and university and trade presses mechanically unsplit all split infinitives, no matter how grotesque the resulting sentence is. Any careful writer who habitually deals with copy-editors can give similar examples.

As for the objectors to Ebonics and others who treat non-standard forms such as “ain’t” as inherently defective, names hardly seem necessary given the nonstop invective of the past few months from virtually every prominent pundit and politician. If you want examples, I’d begin with George Will calling Black English “the patois of America’s meanest streets,” Eldridge Cleaver comparing the acknowledgment of Black English to the condoning of cannibalism, and John Simon saying that Black English comes from “an ignorance of how language works” (see The Language Instinct). For dozens of similar examples, just do a net search for “Ebonics

2. Halpern writes:

I say that what linguistic scientists do when they are doing their science has absolutely no bearing on questions of good usage, and Mr. Pinker begs most energetically to differ. But although he writes with evident passion, he adduces no evidence of the relevance of linguistic science to such questions, he simply asks (rhetorically) “How can one improve the clarity and richness of usage without understanding the basic facts and logic of English?” And these basic facts, of course, are available only through linguistic science—a point he regards as so evident as not even needing to be stated.

Huh? Immediately before the sentence Halpern quotes, I wrote:

In “Mavens” I showed how an ignorance of linguistics and a refusal of many mavens to think analytically about language has led to botched, uninsightful, or downright incorrect discussions about the logic of English constructions. From “flied out” in baseball to “Everyone returned to their seats” to “pickpocketings,” even a smidgen of linguistics allows one to understand what is going on in a far more satisfying and insightful way than ex cathedra pronouncements

Well, those are three examples named right there, taken from my discussion in “Mavens” of many more. The analyses have real consequences. For example, Theodore Bernstein’s botched analysis of “flied out,” and Fowler’s nearly-as-bad analysis of “broadcasted,” would leave them unequipped to advise writers on newer forms such as “costed out,” “tenderfoots,” and countless other regularized irregular plural and past tense forms. In those cases, a dollop of linguistics explains what is going on and gives grounds for consistent advice on the problematic cases.

2. Halpern writes:

What neither Mr. Nunberg nor Mr. Pinker has shown, nor can show, is how linguistic science can tell us how educated people of today should write; that is determined not by science, but by wide reading, tact, discrimination, good taste. All that linguistic science can tell us is that the reasons we mavens sometimes foolishly offer for our judgments, in an attempt to buttress ‘mere opinion’ with scientific support, are (sometimes) wrong. And those mavens who do this deserve the ridicule they often get, as I said in my paper—but this does not affect the validity of their judgments. If Mr. Pinker thinks that linguistic science can settle questions of usage, let him produce one good example—I found none in his book, nor in Mr. Nunberg’s article.

Well, no one ever said that linguistics can settle questions of usage; the issue is whether it can offer important insight, so that a prescriptivist is better off knowing linguistics than being ignorant of it. And I gave many examples in “Mavens” in which knowing some linguistics makes it easier to articulate and prescribe what works in good writing. I’ve already mentioned regularized irregular forms; here’s another. When a writer uses a form such as “If anyone calls, tell them I’ll call back,” should an editor change it? This construction is often clearer, more accurate, and better sounding than the alternatives, and I have examples in which some of our finest contemporary fiction and nonfiction writers use it. Should the constructions be changed nonetheless because they are “illogical” or “inconsistent with the grammar of English”? See [Mavens] for an argument that they should not.

Here are some other examples:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary has profited enormously having Geoffrey Nunberg as its usage editor, and from its linguistically enlightened policies of consulting a usage panel and inserting hundreds of carefully reasoned usage notes.

  • Joseph Williams’ superb manual Style: Towards Clarity and Grace (mentioned repeatedly in Instinct) offers excellent advice on paragraph structure, use of the passive voice, and other writers’ decisions, based on his knowledge of linguistics.

  • Brock Hassamen’s Revising the Rules is a wonderful discussion of the rationale of prescriptive rules in the light of modern linguistics.

  • Most editors throw their hands up when dealing with possessives with gerunds (“Many are concerned over Gadhafi/Gadhafi’s causing problems”). They would have a far better sense of which form is appropriate in what context if they read Thomas Nunnally’s article on that problem in American Speech (1991, pp. 359-370).

  • “Ms. Grammar” (Barbara Wallraff), editor, writer, and usage columnist of our hosts [sic], The Atlantic Monthly, periodically discusses difficult grammatical cases with me, and I like to think that she sometimes finds my analyses useful.

  • Even Mr. Maven himself, William Safire, regularly consults with the linguist Jim McCawley, and quotes him extensively in his column.

So when Mr. Halpern says that linguistics has no bearing on questions of usage, he is not speaking for all editors and mavens.

3. Halpern writes:

Mr. Pinker tries to defend his disastrous analogy of mavens/cat fanciers versus linguistic scientists/mammalian biologists by changing the terms: now it’s “breeders” he wants in place of “fanciers.” No good, Mr. Pinker; your original terms were the right ones, and if they now serve to condemn you, too bad. Breeders certainly need to know a little genetics (and they commonly do); fanciers are like mavens in being connoisseurs of the results of the breeding process, and not themselves breeders.

Breeders are often fanciers and vice-versa. And fanciers do know, for example, what a recessive trait is. But this is all pedantry. The real issue is: should practical experts learn some of the science and scholarship in their domain of expertise, or remain defiantly ignorant of it?

Johnson’s preface is not the monologue of a fictitious character or a stretch of imponderable dramatic rhetoric; it raises genuine issues of fact and policy, which can be profitably analyzed and discussed. What are reasonable goals for a writer of dictionaries? Do languages, in the absence of prescriptivist efforts, decay in expressive and aesthetic power? Do prescriptivist efforts ever make a difference?

Halpern and I do seem to be talking past each other; he appears to be concerned with professional turf and boundaries, and who is entitled to speak about what. The Language Mavens [sic] was not an argument for the authority of linguists, psychologists, or anyone else on matters of usage; it was an argument for stating the issues clearly and thinking about them analytically and knowledgeably.


Steven Pinker-Mark Halpern Exchange
Part 4, 13 March 1997
as posted on the
Atlantic Unbound “Post & Riposte” Site


Halpern's Second to Pinker

I agree with Steven Pinker that he and I seem to be largely writing past each other; I’ll try here to help our monologues converge, perhaps even become a true dialogue.

As is my wont, I let my penchant for colorful writing run away with me in labeling as “Crazy Freddie” those who are still concerned enough about split infinitives or “ain’t” to write letters to the editor, but I do have a serious point: I am not defending all the rules that have ever been proposed, or all the people who have tried to lay down the law on how English should be used—indeed, I disagree with almost all of them; so much so that I tend to think of them collectively as “Crazy Freddie.” People who make up rules for good writing, whether based on the idea that English is just an encoding of Latin, or that you can avoid flat, opaque writing by eschewing the passive voice, are as alien to my way of thinking as is the opposite notion that there are no standards to be observed, no concept of correctness that can legitimately be invoked.

So why don’t we all vow to hold each other responsible for just those things we’ve heard each other say, and not for all the things said by our presumptive allies—I won’t quote to Messrs. Pinker and Nunberg all the silly things said by the hard line descriptivists, and I hope they won’t ask me to account for all the silly things said by Crazy Freddie, even when he is a professor of English. I’m not even prepared to defend every word said by mavens I generally admire, like Safire, Simon, and Barzun.

The point that I try again and again to bring to the attention of readers is that linguistic science comes into play only when a maven tries to give some linguistic justification for a conclusion that he has really come to on the basis of his wide and discriminating reading—and gets his linguistics wrong. Then linguists are fully justified in setting him straight, and even poking some fun at him if they want to. But the maven’s usage recommendation did not spring from his linguistic knowledge, and cannot be defeated by an exposure of his linguistic ignorance. I offered in my first response to Mr. Pinker a concrete example, that of the maven’s insistence that “disinterested” did not mean “uninterested,” and the way that the maven may muddy the waters by an ignorant assertion about the way the word has been used in the past.

That is an example of the ways in which linguistic knowledge enters usage discussions: it is irrelevant for purposes of deciding whether the maven’s suggestion is a good one, highly relevant for purposes of determining if the “scientific” dressing the maven may embellish his recommendation [with] is valid or not. I think that much of the dispute between the two schools, at least between those members engaged in the present controversy, is due to the belief of the descriptivists that the prescriptivists are just another group of pretenders to linguistic knowledge—but inferior ones, who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

And if they have that impression, at least some of the blame falls on the prescriptivists, because some of us are not above posing as linguists, and if we get exposed as poseurs, we deserve it. But, again, while our pretenses may deserve exposure, and make us look silly, they do not really discredit our usage recommendations. Think of the early scientists, like Ptolemy, who calculated orbits and predicted eclipses on the basis of geocentric planetary astronomy: their science was wrong, but their computations yielded perfectly usable results. And few people today, despite knowing that it’s the earth that goes around the sun, not vice versa, could compute an orbit anywhere near as well as Ptolemy, for all his mistaken ideas about what we now know is the solar system.

Mr. Pinker has actually (if I read him rightly) taken a somewhat softer position than I have noted from him before: he now says “no one ever said that linguistics can ‘settle’ questions of usage; the issue is whether it can offer important insight, so that a prescriptivist is better off knowing linguistics than being ignorant of it.” I think that this statement is not, in the strictest sense, true: some descriptivists have said, or plainly implied, that linguistics can “settle” usage issues, but at least in spirit Mr. Pinker’s formulation of the issue is closer to what I think the correct position, and gives me hope that we might actually converge on something like a common position.