Righting Your Writing
Don’t feel confident about your word choice? Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style, provides writers with useful advice about language and punctuation choices now acceptable in modern English.
Unfortunately, his early chapters, on structure and grammar, are hard going and not that useful if your interest is in knowing what’s OK and what’s not in modern language use. These chapters provide the logic behind language choices. But it’s like expecting someone to memorise the whole grammatical structure of a language when all they want to do is order a cup of coffee.
He lightens up the text a little by adding cartoons about language and punctuation, plus comical examples to illustrate how writers may unintentionally mislead. What we write is not always what we mean:
- I enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever.
- After the governor watched the lion perform, he was fed 25 pounds of raw meat.
- Guilt, vengeance, and bitterness can be emotionally destructive to you and your children. You must get rid of them.
If your main interest is to become more confident about using words and punctuation correctly, skip to the last chapter, Telling Right from Wrong.
Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Usage–how language is actually being used–is now easy to assess because computers crunch through huge amounts of written and oral data.
The panel considers changes: new words and phrases that enter the language, others that are heading for the English boneyard. In Shakespeare’s day, apparently even uneducated people could follow the plot. Now, four hundred years on, most of us need notes to understand the details. Even punctuation changes with time.
Pinker gives examples of how a word’s current meaning now differs from the original:
Original: To make worse. His actions aggravated the problem.
Common now: To annoy. His half-baked ideas aggravated the audience.
Original: Gradual increase. Her stellar career followed a clear crescendo.
Common now: Climax, peak. Her career reached a crescendo when she became the CEO.
Original: For a moment, lasting a moment. We momentarily believed him, but later it was clear that he lied.
Common now: In a moment. We’ll let him know the outcome momentarily.
Original: Soon. He’s expected to arrive presently.
Common now: Now. There are presently 100 people booked to attend.
Pinker identifies words that often confuse writers. Some examples:
- Bemused means bewildered, not amused. I was bemused by his outlandish actions, and I did not find them at all amusing.
- Criteria refers to plural items, criterion to one item. He answered all the criteria for the job, except one, the criterion of being proficient in Pidgin.
- Flaunt means to show off, and flout means to ignore the rules. She flaunted her skill in deep-sea diving, but the captain criticised her for flouting his diving rules.
- Enormity means extreme evil and enormousness refers to a large size. While testifying, she appeared to be more fixated on her enormousness, which she said was due to stress, than on the enormity of her crime.
- Hone means to sharpen, and home in on means to converge. E.g. When honing my tai chi routine, I try to home in on mindfulness.
- Ironic means incongruent, not inconvenient. Pinker’s example: It was inconvenient when I forgot my chemistry textbook, but how ironic to forgot to attend the lecture on memory techniques.
- Literally means in actual fact, not a marker of intensity. He literally blushed when he spilled his drink, but he did not literally die from embarrassment. However, some dictionaries now accept the intensifier, due to its growing popularity.
The term grocer’s apostrophe refers to the wrongly punctuated signs often seen in the greengrocer’s shop when plurals are used: Apple’s on sale, potatoe’s reduced. I am relaxed about this use. Some people whip out a pen and correct the wrong punctuation, to apples on sale, potatoes reduced. I find the variation charming, reminiscent of a time when language was so flexible that even Shakespeare used different spellings for his own surname.
Changing punctuation developments may also move you to change how and when you use commas, semicolons, and dashes.
At the end of his book, Pinker reminds us that working out what’s right or wrong in our choice of words and punctuation is only a tiny aspect of language. Much more important in using language is the role of ‘critical thinking and factual diligence.’ Rather than nitpicking about how English is degenerating, we would do better to focus on creating a writing style that enables us to ‘enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.’
Source: Steven Pinker. 2014. The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. Allen Lane.