One of the most frustrating challenges I have encountered throughout my diverse career in language, linguistics, education, government, startups, consulting, and nutrition is the widespread use of clunky, confusing language. In many ways, learning the ins and outs of Academese, Bureaucratese, Corporatese, Legalese, and Medicalese have proven much more challenging than Japanese and Chinese! And it turns out I am not alone in my frustration with overly complex, stilted language. In this great talk by cognitive psycholinguist Steven Pinker, an academic who refreshingly avoids most Academese himself, he argues that w e should simplify written communication using “Classic Style” (a clear, conversational writing style that places the writer and reader as equals so that the latter can see the world through the former’s eyes) as opposed to the Postmodern Style (a cumbersome, bloated style that prioritizes communicating the intelligence of the writer). He also argues that:
- Contrary to popular belief, bad writing is nothing new and we are not being dumbed down by the Internet or social media.
- Spoken language is an “instinctive tendency”, while writing is an unnatural “act of craftsmanship” that must be learned.
- Languages change. Most style guides (e.g. The Elements of Style) will inevitably become increasingly pedantic and obsolete with time. Moreover, they include prescriptive dos and don’ts based on the arbitrary preferences of their authors, not a thorough understanding of how languages actually work.
- Instead of style guides, we should encourage better writing today using: 1) modern grammatical theory (as opposed to historical grammars based on Latin), 2) evidence-based dictionaries, 3) cognitive science research into what makes sentences easier to understand, and 4) historical and critical studies into language usage.
For more writing tips from Steven Pinker, check out his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.