Pinker On Language Wars
May 31, 2012, 10:53 PM
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Steven Pinker writes in Slate:
Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language. This pseudo-controversy, a staple of literary magazines for decades, was ginned up again this month by The New Yorker, which has something of a history with the bogus battle. Fifty years ago, the literary critic Dwight Macdonald lambasted the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary for aiming to be “a recording instrument rather than … an authority” and insufficiently censuring such usages as “deprecate” for depreciate, “bored” for disinterested, and “imply” for infer.

Surely, these three examples are presented backward: 

  • CPAs don't say, "We'll deprecate that asset over three years" (unless it's a Windows Vista PC, in which case it deserves relentless deprecation).
  • Supreme Court Justices don't say, "I'll have to recuse myself in this case because my financial ties to the plaintiff mean I am not bored."
  • Historians of science don't say that "From the Michelson-Morley experiment and the problem with the orbit of Mercury, Einstein implied that something must be inadequate about Newton's system." 

The last is the least severe of the three problem pairs, since you can usually turn the sentence around to make either imply or infer work: "To Einstein, the MM experiment and the Mercury problem implied ..." But the other two pairs are apples and oranges. 

I am especially adamant against using "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," since the distinction between a disinterested and an interested party is so crucial to a decent civic life. For example, I've long pointed out that the so called experts quoted in the press on how much Hispanic voters want more Hispanic immigration are "not disinterested" because they make their livings claiming to lead a huge number of Hispanics, so they have an interest in expanding that number by claiming that Republicans are facing ruin at the polls unless they submit on immigration. But, it's ever harder to get across this notion as more people think, "Well, of course they aren't bored with immigration."  

As for the Language Wars in general, I'm not a terribly active participant. I lack the precision of mind to set a good example. I appreciate that my readers don't seem to mind my frequent solecisms. And I appreciate brief comments helpfully pointing out errors. I try to fix them when I have time. 

In general, it's been educational for me over the years to meet heavyweights with extremely precise minds, such as Pinker, Charles Murray, and John Derbyshire. In contrast, I make a lot of mistakes and can't follow instructions well. I suspect I have poor working memory and good long term memory, so I'm able to dredge up lots of examples. This access to examples allows me to have some success at reductionism.