Steven Pinker

Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker join us to talk about best practices of modern writing. He’ll talk about which grammar rules we should follow, which ones don’t make sense and why you should avoid cliches “like the plague.” Pinker’s new book is “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.”

Avoiding Zombie Nouns: Writing Advice From Steven Pinker 8 October,2014forum

Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, professor at Harvard University and author of books including "The Sense of Style" and "The Language Instinct"

  • Eamonn

    Stop abuse of the verb to lay. It’s “I want to lie down”, not “I want to lay down.”

    If you say “I lay at home” it means that’s that you did in the past.

    • Robert Thomas

      “He laid on the bed, sleeping…”

      I don’t know if we’ll ever escape this hideous calamity.

  • Chris OConnell

    Pinker merits a whole hour (or 2).

    • disqus_etgIit3N5k

      We agree! Unfortunately, he was only available for half an hour and we decided any Pinker is better than no Pinker. Hopefully next time we can get him for a full hour.
      -Amanda Stupi, Forum producer

  • Cal M

    Given Professor Pinker’s role as head of the AH dictionary usage panel, could you ask him a question that I think bedevils a lot of people, namely:

    What are the fundamental differences between the major dictionaries & why would one use Merriam Webster over American Heritage over Oxford English, etc?


  • ES Trader

    My copy of “Strunk & White”, that I have had since 1970, remains in “collector” condition !

    Why is the idea of an essay or statement always placed in “economy” class by English professors behind style?

    Aren’t ideas and questions of “the mystey” of the universe more important that the style of expression?

    It’s the rich or famous question for me.

    • Robert Thomas


      • ES Trader

        poor and anonymous if that is preferable

  • newel

    What are some useful general or specific strategies to develop a better writing style? (read certain publications, active reading?)

  • Martha Swaim

    Two examples of changed use after original was preempted: “For Free” seemed to come into use after free showed up in “fat free”. sugar free, gluten free. I would like to see Webster change this one: Entitlement as “Sense of entitlement” seems redundant and contributes to misunderstanding.

  • Storm

    What about the use of “utilize” vs “use”? I find many people use “utilize” when “use” would work better.

  • Robert Thomas

    How about a simple moratorium on “in terms of”?

    I’ve heard or read this hideous phrase to appear three times, in the same sentence.

    Don’t we wish that split infinitives or dangling participles were the worst things we encounter?

    I hear

    “…had went…”,
    “…him and her went…”

    “part and parcel” as a transitive verb phrase to mean “sort”:

    “We need to part and parcel these items from one another.”

    On NPR!
    The things that clang now that we hear and read in public – even in public broadcasting – make one shudder, almost daily.

    • Whamadoodle

      “In a timely manner.” Admittedly, this doesn’t have the obvious solution–er, of flipping open a thesaurus–that the overuse of the word “yummy” does. But isn’t there SOME other way to convey that thought? Every time someone says “in a timely manner,” I imagine it being read in the voice of Edie McClurg’s meaner, more professional sister.

  • Storm

    Michael – clear thinking will aid clear writing – I also advise many friends and students that ‘writing will aid clear thinking’ – a wise professor once told me ” if you can’t say it in words, you don’t know what you think” – human being think in words, and writing something out can help you with what you think about it.

    • Pontifikate

      That’s the problem in teaching writing to high-school students, those who don’t think very logically. Teaching writing is teaching thinking. Try doing that with a class of 30 or so. Now try doing it for five classes of 30 or more!

      That is the plight of an English teacher.

  • Burche

    What about the SATs and English? I don’t believe the test is always correct. Is it?

  • Patricia Kimball

    Jeez, this show was terrific (read & loved Pinker’s LANGUAGE INSTINCT–and what great sensibility & style the man has, in writing & in person) but I had to get into the office and, lo! it is not available for streaming (drat).
    – How about a crash campaign on the use of the object pronoun? I am tortured by the improper use of the subject pronoun where the object pronoun is called for–this, in print, on the air…the most [supposedly] educated people are doing it. Yuk!
    – re ‘thinking in words’: Don’t miss Temple Grandin’s ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION & her discussions of thinking in pictures & the pitfalls of thinking in words.
    – Even Chicago admits that it’s ok to end a sentence with a preposition.

  • Whamadoodle

    I once heard a radio-show caller (not on NPR) say she “had snucken” somewhere.

    • Robert Thomas

      WD, on a recant KTVU 10:00 news broadcast I heard

      “One of the most mildest…”
      “…much more milder…”
      “…had went…”
      “Cabrillo” pronounced to rhyme with “pillow” (in a California news broadcast)

      from the mouths of the on-air talent within thirty seconds of one another.

      • Whamadoodle

        My favorite news anchor sentences were:

        1) (Read this one aloud, to make sure you get the full effect of it.)
        “Wow, I haven’t seen the mayor as strongly-worded as that in many a long time!”

        2) On-Site Reporter [After an earthquake]: “…and as you can see, the two-bedroom Eichler home behind me was almost. Completely. Destroyed. Jane?”
        Anchor: “Well thank you for that, and of course, our hearts go out to the Eichler family.”

        • Robert Thomas

          Especially, to the Eichler children.

  • Norm

    I would like the audio archive, please!

    • disqus_etgIit3N5k

      It’s up now Norm. Our shows are usually archived online by about 12:30 p.m. on the days that they air. Thanks for the interest!
      -Amanda Stupi, Forum producer

      • Norm

        Thanks so much. N.

  • Ordoubadian

    Can you address how to string sentences together to form cohesiveness–thinking about old to new contract. Perhaps you can discuss the influence of Thomas and Turner’s Clear and Simple Truth as far as the more global aspects of developing an argument/paragraph.

  • Bozo De Niro

    “academic prose overstuffed with passive voice — I know how to dispense the sludge” lol & pff

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