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
Article 2 Vocab
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:
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.