Sunday 21 December 2014

The Curse of Knowledge

I've been plugging away at The Blob for nearly two years now and it's clear I haven't explored all the crannies of my mind, let alone the nooks of the known Universe. I'm surprised, for example, that I haven't had cause to write about Steven Pinker before, because I've learned more from him in the last decade than from any other person. It may seem to you Dear Reader that a succession of random thoughts gets developed here and then fades away into the archives, never to be read or even thought about again.  I just corrected the previous sentence so that "fades" agrees with succession rather than the interloping "random thoughts" which would fade [no final s].  I'm tuned up to thus try to be grammatical and therefore intelligible because I'm reading Steven Pinker's new book A Sense of Style.  Which is billed as "The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century" but could equally be called "you may throw away your Strunk and White - the Engish language has moved on these last 100 years."  Strunk and White's Elements of Style is still in print and still useful but Pinker's book has thrown a lot of its baggage into a heap on some waste-ground and set fire to it.

A week ago I was looking back on my woeful attempts to understand English grammar as a child. One of Pinker's assertions is that unless you were in school before the 1960s or were privately educated after that decade, you won't have been taught formal grammar at all.  This won't stop you from speaking perfectly grammatical sentences (even 5 year old children can do this because their minds have been taken over by Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar Fairies), but it may hinder you in developing complex ideas on paper. Pinker's new style-manual has been a revelation. When I was learning grammar, I got the idea of subject - verb - object and, as at the same time I was learning German, I understood that not everyone made sense the way anglophones did: Germans typically order their sentences subject - object - verb-at-the-end. That was all well and interesting but I came away from 12 years in school thinking that "the predicate" was a fancy word for "the object" of a sentence.  Well now I know that the predicate is what's left when you've parsed out the subject.

I was also bamboozled at school about what was a conjunction and it turns out that so was everyone else but they just didn't realise it.  Pinker explains that "conjunctions" include two incommensurate classes of word: coordinators like and & or and subordinators like then & if.  The only thing these two categories have in common is that they link two parts of a sentence but the same could be said of English verbs!  Conjunctions are therefore no longer recognised by grammarians: that bin is history.  I wish they'd told us 50 years ago, I wouldn't have struggled so much.

The most powerful concept developed in aSoS is The Curse of Knowledge: the inability to unlearn what you know to better appreciate what it's like not knowing that stuff.  For writers, especially of undisciplined meanderings like most blogs, this needs to be constantly watched for. Much of what is clear in the writer's head doesn't go down on paper because it is 'obvious to all thinking people', but in most cases it's not. Indeed, a moment's thought will suggest that if it really was obvious to all thinking people we wouldn't bother to write or read it.  The effect of this is for the writer to launch into his subject with so much taken for granted that his meaning is cryptic and obscure.  I don't dare go back to read the stuff I was lashing out last year and I hereby resolve to be clearer, make fewer assumptions and spell out my acronyms in future.

Another thing which Pinker is quite clear about is the inconsistency of our use of apostrophes. We write Bob's nose to indicate that Bob has a facial appendage; but for the dog we refer to its nose (no apostrophe because it's is conventionally used to contract it is). This news appears in an earlier list of blobadvice which will help you tell apostrophe-nazis to piss off and do something useful.

1 comment:

  1. I object to being labelled an apostrophe nazi just because I enjoy the 'it's' 'its' challenge as much as I do say the 'fluorescence' 'flourescence' one! For the moment, one version of each example is correct in certain situations and one is not. This was not the case 100 years ago and will surely not be the case 100 years from now. But we are living now.....