Writing tips from the master, Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker

Bloomberg’s reporters are not allowed to start a sentence with a “but”.

“Clauses that start with although, but, despite or however often confuse more than clarify, because the words connect dissimilar ideas in a single sentence,” writes Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief  Matthew Winkler in his style book, The Bloomberg Way.

Instead, his solution is to break up the sentences into shorter ones, reports Business Insider.

But, according to Steven Pinker…

But there’s nothing wrong in beginning a sentence with a “but”. So says Steven Pinker, the eminent psychologist and one of the foremost writers on language.

He is perfectly okay with sentences opening with and, because, or, so, also. As he says:

Many children are taught that it is ungrammatical to begin a sentence with a conjunction. That’s because teachers need a simple way to teach them how to break sentences, so they tell them that sentences beginning with “and” and other conjunctions are ungrammatical. Whatever the pedagogical merits may be of feeding children misinformation, it is inappropriate for adults.

Pinker — who has come out with a new book, The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century — rubbishes some of the rules laid down by purists.

Read what he has to say in the Guardian. He writes:

“And”, “but” and “so” are indispensable in linking individual sentences into a coherent passage, and they may be used to begin a sentence whenever the clauses being connected are too long or complicated to fit comfortably into a single megasentence. The conjunction “because” can also happily sit at the beginning of a sentence. Most commonly it ends up there when it introduces an explanation that has been preposed in front of a main clause, as in: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” But it can also kick off a single clause when the clause serves as the answer to a why question: “‘Why can’t I have a pony?’ ‘Because I said so.'”

Preposition at the end of a sentence

Pinker writes:

There is nothing, repeat nothing, wrong with “Who are you looking at?” or “The better to see you with” or “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” or “It’s you she’s thinking of”. The pseudo-rule was invented by John Dryden based on a silly analogy with Latin…

The standard question rule in English converts “You are seeing what?” into “What are you seeing?” and hence “You are looking at what?” into “What are you looking at?”

How should you choose? … a preposition should be stranded at the end of a sentence when it contributes a crucial bit of information, as in “music to read by”, “something to guard against”, or when it pins down the meaning of an idiom, as in “It’s nothing to sneeze at” or “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about”.

Fewer? Less?

Pinker writes:

“Less” is perfectly natural with a singular count noun, as in “one less car” and “one less thing to worry about”. It’s also natural when… the count noun refers to units of measurement, such as “21 years old” and “70 miles an hour”… And “less” is idiomatic in certain expressions… such as “Describe yourself in 50 words or less.”… In cases where “less” and “fewer” are both available, such as “Less/fewer than 20 of the students voted”, “fewer” is the better choice because it enhances vividness and concreteness. But that does not mean that “less” is a grammatical error.

It’s I? It’s me?

Here’s Pinker’s take on what he calls the “predicative nominative”:

When you come home after a day at the office, do you call out, “Hi, honey, it’s I”? If you do, you are the victim of a schoolteacher rule that insists that a pronoun serving as the complement of “be” must be in nominative case (I, he, she, we, they) rather than accusative case (me, him, her, us, them)…

The rule is a product of the usual three confusions: English with Latin, informal style with incorrect grammar and syntax with semantics. Accusative predicates have been used for centuries by many respected writers (including Samuel Pepys, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf), and the choice between “It is he” and “It is him” is strictly one of formal versus informal style.

Who? Whom?

Pinker writes:

It ought to be straightforward. The distinction between “who” and “whom” is identical to that between “he” and “him” or “she” and “her”, which no one finds difficult. We say “He kissed the bride,” so we ask “Who kissed the bride?” We say “Henry kissed her,” so we ask “Whom did Henry kiss?” But even after a century of nagging by prescriptive grammarians, the “who–whom” distinction remains tenuous in speech and informal writing. Only the stuffiest prig would say “Whom are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” “It’s not what you know; it’s whom you know.” …

Though “whom” is pompous in short questions and relative clauses, it is a natural choice in certain other circumstances, even in informal speech and writing. We still use “whom” in double questions like “Who’s dating whom?”, and in fixed expressions like “To whom it may concern” and “With whom do you wish to speak?”…

The best advice to writers is to calibrate their use of “whom” to the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality they desire. If William Safire, who wrote the New York Times’ “On Language” column and coined the term “language maven” in reference to himself, could write, “Let tomorrow’s people decide who they want to be president,” so can you.

That? Which?

Pinker writes:

According to the traditional rule, the choice depends on which of two kinds of relative clause the word is introducing. A nonrestrictive relative clause is set off by commas, dashes or parentheses, as in “The pair of shoes, which cost five thousand dollars, was hideous.” A restrictive relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence (as in) “The pair of shoes that cost £5,000 was hideous.” The choice between “that” and “which”, according to the rule, is simple: nonrestrictive relative clauses take “which”; restrictive relative clauses take “that”.

One part of the rule is correct: it’s odd to use “that” with a nonrestrictive relative clause, as in “The pair of shoes, that cost £5,000, was hideous.” So odd, in fact, that few people write that way, rule or no rule.

The other part of the rule is utterly incorrect. There is nothing wrong with using “which” to introduce a restrictive relative clause, as in “The pair of shoes which cost £5,000 was hideous.” Indeed, with some restrictive relatives, “which” is the only option, such as “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”…

Like, as, such as

Pinker recalls the slogan, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” He writes:

The jingle allegedly contained a grammatical error. “Like” is a preposition, said the accusers, and may take only a noun phrase object, as in “crazy like a fox” or “like a bat out of hell”. It is not a conjunction and so may not be followed by a clause. The New Yorker sneered at the error, Ogden Nash wrote a poem about it, Walter Cronkite refused to say it on the air, and style guide icons Strunk and White declared it illiterate. The slogan, they all agreed, should have been “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.”

They were wrong, says Pinker:

Like many usage controversies, the brouhaha over “like a cigarette should” is a product of grammatical ineptitude and historical ignorance. The ad’s use of “like” with a clause was not a recent corruption; the combination has been in use for 600 years. It has been used in literary works by dozens of great writers (including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, HG Wells and William Faulkner)… The alleged error is not an error… (the) slogan was perfectly grammatical. Writers are free to use either “like” or “as”, mindful only that “as” is a bit more formal.

He adds:

A related superstition, ruthlessly enforced by many copy editors, is that “like” may not be used to introduce examples, as in “Many technical terms have become familiar to laypeople, like ‘cloning’ and ‘DNA’.” They would correct it to “such as ‘cloning’ and ‘DNA'”. According to this guideline, “like” may be used only for resemblance to an exemplar, as in “I’ll find someone like you” and “Poems are made by fools like me.” Few writers consistently follow this bogus rule. “Such as” is more formal than “like”, but both are legitimate.

Dangling modifiers

Pinker writes:

Do you see a problem with the sentences that follow?

“Checking into the hotel, it was nice to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.”

“Turning the corner, the view was quite different.”

“In order to contain the epidemic, the area was sealed off.”

According to an old rule about “dangling modifiers”, these sentences are ungrammatical. The rule decrees that the implied subject of the modifier (the one doing the checking, turning, and so on) must be identical to the overt subject of the main clause (it, the view, and so on). Most copy editors would recast the main clause, supplying it with a subject to which the modifier can be properly fastened:

“Checking into the hotel, I was pleased to see a few of my old classmates in the lobby.”

“Turning the corner, I saw that the view was quite different.”

“In order to contain the epidemic, authorities sealed off the area.”…

But some so-called danglers are perfectly acceptable. Many participles have turned into prepositions, such as “according”, “allowing”, “concerning”, “considering”, “excepting”, “following”, “given”, “granted”, “owing”, “regarding” and “respecting”, and they don’t need subjects at all. Inserting “we find” or “we see” into the main clause to avoid a dangler can make the sentence stuffy and self-conscious. More generally, a modifier can dangle when its implied subject is the writer and the reader. (However) in formal styles it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye open for them and to correct the obtrusive ones.

Split infinitives

Pinker recalls:

During the 2009 presidential inauguration, Chief Justice John Roberts, a famous stickler for grammar, could not bring himself to have Barack Obama “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States”. Abandoning his strict constructionism, Roberts unilaterally amended the Constitution and had Obama “solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.” The garbled oath raised fears about whether the transfer of power had been legitimate, and so they repeated the oath verbatim, split verb and all, in a private meeting later that afternoon.

He adds:

The very terms “split infinitive” and “split verb” are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, “to love”. But in English, the so-called infinitive “to write” consists of two words, not one: the subordinator “to” and the plain form of the verb “write”, which can also appear without “to” in constructions such as “She helped him pack” and “You must be brave.” There is not the slightest reason to interdict an adverb from the position before the main verb, and great writers in English have placed it there for centuries. Indeed, the spot in front of the main verb is often the most natural resting place for an adverb, and sometimes it is the only resting place. Unsplitting the infinitive in the New Yorker cartoon caption “I’m moving to France to not get fat” (yielding “I’m moving to France not to get fat”) would garble the meaning, and doing so with “Profits are expected to more than double this year,” would result in gibberish: “Profits are expected more than to double this year.”…

This does not mean that infinitives should always be split. Indeed, it’s a good habit to at least consider moving an adverb to the end of the verb phrase. If the adverb conveys important information, it belongs there…

Finally, in many cases a quantifier naturally floats leftward away from the verb, unsplitting the infinitive:

“I find it hard to specify when to not split an infinitive.”

“I find it hard to specify when not to split an infinitive.”

The unsplit versions sound more elegant to me…