What differences are there in the way that scientists and laypeople use the term grammar?
Grammatical machineries such as verbs, nouns and auxiliaries apply in all societies, regardless of the language used. Despite this, there still exists a difference on how scientists and laypeople use the term grammar. For a layperson, grammar is learned and it is governed by perspective rules which determine how one is supposed to talk (Pinker, 19). Scientists, on the other hand, believe that the fundamental fact of human language is its sheer improbability.
What is it about the language mavens that bother Pinker?
According to Pinker, the language mavens are the decision makers on the proper English that should be used. He describes them as "an informal network of copy editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual writers, English teachers, essayists and pundits," who emphasize on following the rules of "correct English." (Pinker, 20) However, what bothers pinker is that the rules do conform neither to tradition nor to logic. Also, if writers had to follow these rules, it would be hard to express some thoughts, thus resulting in fuzzy and incomprehensible prose.
Pinker spends some time deconstructing some commonly held prescriptive rules of grammar, showing them to have no real claim to being logical, precise or clear. Pick one example of a rule he demystifies and summarizes his reasoning.
Pinker disagrees with the commonly held perspective rules of grammar. He does not agree with the so-called "double negative" rule. For example, saying I didn't buy any lottery tickets would be seen as disobeying the rules; however, the word "any" plays the same role as "no" in both the standard and the nonstandard English. Pinker notes that the only difference is that nonstandard English co-opted the word "no" while standard English co-opted the word "any" as the agreement element (Pinker 21).
Pinker claims that most prescriptive rules are rather flimsy and are perpetuated only as a means of upholding social distinctions. Discuss the idea that prescriptive rules are just there to maintain social distinctions. How would that work?
Rules on grammar have been in existence since the eighteenth century where for one to be distinguished as learned, they had to master the best English version. One of those rules is the Perspective rule which once introduced, cannot be quickly eradicated (Parker 20). Perspective rules are psychologically unnatural, and only those who can access better education can abide by them. If one is unable to obtain the knowledge, then they would be perceived as failures. Therefore, perspective rules act as a means of differentiating the elite from the rabble.
Pinker makes a distinction between speech and writing. What are some differences between speaking and writing? What kinds of errors are we likely to make writing that we would not make in speech?
The human language was not originally designed for putting one's thoughts on paper and this makes it a difficult craft that requires practice (Parker 26). Pinker points out that there are distinctions between writing and speech. Writing, unlike speech, bridges time and speech. Also, while speech may occur as a continuous flow of word, writing requires omission of needless words and extensive revision. Pinker, for example, points out that it would be easier to use some words like "y'all" while speaking unlike while writing. He also notes that people are designed to read but still lack reading instincts; speech is designed for our brains. Writing on the other hand, is optimized by forces such as cultural selection.
Pinker, Steven. "Grammar Puss." The New Republic 21 (1994): 19-26.
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