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· Homely Remedy: Dr. Pinker's Prescription ·

Multiple sets of papers prompt the need today for writing relief. There is none better, perhaps, than that of Dr. Steven Pinker. In his The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, the famous Harvard linguist offers a "homely remedy" for that one "aspect of language use that is most worth changing" — "the clarity and style of written prose."

Since I'll be pushing his remedy in the days to come, I thought you might like, without added comment, Dr. Pinker's prescription:

Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conversational partner, a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one's natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and — probably most important — intensive exposure to good examples. There are excellent manuals of composition that discuss these and other skills with great wisdom, like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. What is most relevant to my point is how removed their practical advice is from the trivia of split infinitives and slang. For example, a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively. Good writers go through anywhere from two to twenty drafts before releasing a paper. Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, "Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times." Kind of takes the fun out, doesn't it? It's not something that can be blamed on television, rock music, shopping, mall culture, overpaid athletes, or any of the other signs of the decay of civilization. But if it's clear writing that we want, this is the kind of homely remedy that is called for. Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Langauge, New York: HarperPerennial, 1995, 401.


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