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Articles of the Month – Battle of the Grammarians

In the left corner, weighing in with a Harvard doctorate degree in philosophy and a tenured position at the university, is intellectual rock star, Stephen Pinker-author of such bestselling books as The Blank Slate and The Language Instinct.

In the right corner, weighing in with the irreproachable intellectual organ that is the New Yorker, is Nathan Heller—a finalist for the National Magazine Award for essays and criticism.

With contentious debate over predicative nominatives, dangling participles, and the distinction between “who” and “whom”, those to who (or is it whom?) I’m writing should best prepare themselves for some heavy mudslinging.

Mr. Pinker will present his case in two articles:

Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions
10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes)
GRE words Mr. Pinker will sneak into his cri de couer:
Article 1 Vocab

  • Conflated
  • Umbrage
  • Solecism
  • Peeves
  • Ubiquitous
  • Turgid
  • Opaque
  • Unconscionable
  • Idiosyncratic
  • Apocrypha
  • Commendations
  • Assiduous
  • Incursion

Article 2 Vocab

  • Fortuitous
  • Comprise
  • Decimate
  • Flout
  • Maven
  • Flippant
  • Affected
  • Pedagogical
  • Pedantry
  • Spurious
  • Pernicious
  • Orotund
  • Aggregate
  • Discrete
  • Carping
  • Putative

Mr. Heller, in response to Mr. Pinker’s articles, will have a turn.

Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar
GRE words from Mr. Heller’s rebuttal include the following:

  • Tenuous
  • Diktat
  • Brazen
  • Concede
  • Louche
  • Parochial
  • Transgressions

Who is the victor? Well, ultimately I’ll let you decide.

My thoughts? Pinker makes some great point about the Mrs. Thistlebottoms of the world, perpetuating grammatical falsehoods that others are only too eager to parrot. Many of these putative bogeymen should be unmasked for what they are—grammatically correct constructions employed by professional writers every day—and I applaud Pinker for disabusing the masses.

However, on another level, I have to side with Heller, who actually agrees with Pinker that the Mrs. Thistlebottoms have peddled superstitious grammatical rules. What Heller is focusing on is the can of worms that is inevitably opened when you venture into the greyer areas of grammar, where there are no hard and fast rules, where the colloquial bumps up against—sometimes brazenly—the written. While I like Pinker’s reasoning on some of these grammatical grey zones, other times I feel like he muddies the water (as Heller points out) or that he expects us to take his reasoning as a matter of faith, the ultimate arbitrator on a point of contention (does that make him a prescriptivist descriptivist?)

Of course, Heller does punch a little below the belt by quibbling with the style in Pinker’s writing (though “infused by” in Pinker’s article does sound off). I would have liked if Heller more explicitly spelled out the need to bring to light and ultimately dispel many of the grammatical myths. It is easy to come away from Heller’s article thinking that Pinker’s top 10 rules to break are actually sacrosanct rules and that Pinker is a blowhard.

I’m going to call this a close fight that went all 12 rounds, with a split decision 2-1 in favor of Pinker.

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6 Responses to Articles of the Month – Battle of the Grammarians

  1. Hazel May 14, 2016 at 9:10 pm #

    As a nonnative speaker, I’m on the side of purists. Volatile principles always lead me into morass. When I read “10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes)” , I find some examples just too farfetched to be persuasive, and later, ha, I find the same feeling comes to Nathan Heller!

  2. Naveed October 27, 2015 at 9:48 am #

    Hello chris ,
    Thanks for posting this month article of the the Month ..
    What i want to ask is do you recommend books and articles of Malcolm Gladwell for Gre level reading .. Does his work can be helpful in creating the required reading mind for Gre .. Please advise.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 29, 2015 at 10:43 am #

      Hi Naveed,

      Good question! I LOVE Malcolm Gladwell articles and look every week to see if he has released a new one. But the thing about Malcolm Gladwell is he is a masterful storyteller. That intimate and utterly engaging style is almost incompatible with the language you’ll find on the GRE. Amongst the New Yorker stable of writers, Adam Gopnik has a much more sophisticated GRE-level style. Below is a list of highly-esteemed New Yorker writers along with one of their best-known articles:

      Happy reading 🙂

  3. pengu October 26, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    Heller wrongly spelt Keller.

    Nice article/post!

    • Dani Lichliter
      Dani Lichliter October 26, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

      Thanks for catching that! 🙂 I fixed those mistakes.
      Have a great day!

  4. Renee Liu October 23, 2015 at 7:50 am #

    Yay! Finally another article of the month! Thanks

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