Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice

This post by Chris Mooney originally appeared on Mother Jones on 10/3/14.

Steven Pinker explains why you don’t have to follow bogus grammar rules.

Leave it to a scientist to finally explain how to kill off bad writing.

In his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker basically outdoes Strunk and White. The celebrated Harvard cognitive scientist and psycholinguist explains how to write in clear, “classic” prose that shares valuable information with clarity but never condescension. And he tells us why so many of the tut-tutting grammar “rules” that we all think we’re supposed to follow—don’t split infinitives, don’t use the passive voice, don’t end a sentence with a preposition—are just nonsense.

“There are so many bogus rules in circulation that kind of serve as a tactic for one-upmanship,” explains Pinker on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. “They’re a way in which one person can prove that they’re more sophisticated or literate than someone else, and so they brandish these pseudo-rules.”

Unlike past sages of style, Pinker approaches grammar from a scientific perspective, as a linguist. And that’s what leads him to the unavoidable conclusion that language is never set in stone; rather, it is a tool that is constantly evolving and changing, continually adding new words and undoing old rules and assumptions. “When it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum,” writes Pinker in The Sense of Style.

Indeed, Pinker notes with amusement in the book that in every era, there is always somebody complaining about how all the uncouth speakers of the day are wrecking the Queen’s English. It’s basically the linguistic equivalent of telling the kids to get off your lawn. Why does this happen? “As a language changes from beneath our feet, we feel the sands shifting and always think that it’s a deterioration,” explains Pinker on the podcast. “Whereas, everything that’s in the language was an innovation at some point in the history of English. If you’re living through the transition, it feels like a deterioration even though it’s just a change.”


Click here to read the full post or listen to the podcast on Mother Jones.