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In an essay titled Writing in the 21st Century (Skip the first six paragraphs), Steven Pinker, the famous psycholinguist, notes that there are hundreds of grammar rules, and some are valuable. But he says they should not be the first things to concentrate on when we think about improving our writing style.

Steven Pinker, now at Harvard, says the Elements of Style usage manual is valuable but has some “cockamamie advice.”

 

The problem, he says, is that people focus tremendous attention on writing-style guides such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which are filled with what to do and what not to do. And people often adhere to the advice unquestioningly. Supervisors who edit also enforce the guidelines without ever questioning their rationale, and a number of the directives are obsolete or not factual, says Pinker.

Strunk and White caution people not to use “contact” as a verb, as in Please contact me next week, and Pinker says such advice is “bizarre” to a writer in the 21st Century. Contact has been used as a verb for decades and is now entrenched in the language.

Elements of Style, written in 1959, was the seminal usage manual, and millions of Americans have kept it on their office desks for decades. But Strunk and White had written the book long before language use and sentence structure were studied as a science. Today, experts in such fields as psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, and cognitive processing are able to provide more substantive advice about grammar based on scientific research. They know, for example, that the passive voice, which is frowned on in most style books, is sometimes appropriate because it serves a syntactical function. The structure of the sentence helps the reader link the thought to the previous sentence.

Pinker says Strunk and White could not provide a detailed analysis of passive voice because they had not been trained in grammar. “A lot of Strunk and White’s advice depended completely on their gut reactions from a career as an English professor and a critic, respectively,” he said.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.

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