“Anything Goes – Good. ‘Pedants’ – Bad”

In Word of Mouth On about Monday 20th April, Radio 4 had another go at “Pedants”. In “resolving” the issue, they applied the usual house style used with this issue by presenting one side of the argument only. They had a chap who apparently used to be a “pedant” – maybe the balance here comes from the side he supported in the past, vs his allegiance today… though some say no-one is keener, e.g less balanced, than a convert.

At the heart of this Down With The “Pedants” effort, lies the view, first, that language is an evolutionary process, followed by the non-sequitur that anything that happens within it is therefore OK. (Of course, if it is, then those branded as “pedants” are equally OK.)

Because it’s so convenient to assume and suggest that your opponent disagrees merely because they’ve missed a simple elementary point and is very slow to learn, the anti-“Pendant”ists try to strengthen their claim by wheeling in An Authority to repeat it. Peeved at complaints about Adam Rutherford’s persistent and distracting use of “bacteria” in cases where he should use, as his interviewees usually do, “bacterium”, they got Steven Pinker to claim that in language, anything goes.

The trouble with putting up An Authority Of High Reputation as your champion instead of diving into the subtlety of the issue, listening carefully to and trying to understand your opponents, is that they then have no option but to include as a major component of their response, an attack on the reputation of your champion. You also show that you’re not keen on technical argument, but let’s look first at Pinker.

I’ve been happy with almost everything I’ve heard him say for many years – perhaps it’s decades now. Some years ago I realised that in the field that I enjoy so much called evolutionary psychology, what we say is often sort of true and sort of not, and usually depends on exactly what you mean by… And the same applies to related areas of psychology, so I try to restrict myself to contributions that are either astonishing “truths” or usable as part of a computer program with extraordinary capabilities. Pinker seems to be doing a fair amount of useful experimentation, and I agree with him that language didn’t suddenly appear overnight, but what’s slightly more worrying is that he’s supposed to be Something Special. To be a statesman it takes more than just saying what the majority thinks, otherwise you might as well be reading from Wikipedia. A figure of significant worthwhile knowledge makes pronouncements in very unclear areas or that at first sound wrong, and which then turn out to be both true and useful.

When I first became aware of Steven Pinker I didn't think it would be long before I heartily disliked him.  But listening to him always reminds me of reading something I'd written myself a while back, then forgotten about.  Because we are both experimental psychologists and of the same vintage, I'm obviously going to be able to dispute loads of stuff in the area with him, even though it's obviously more his speciality.  But also, presumably because of the similarities (my personal tutor for my BSc had even studied at McGill), I find our general scientific outlooks are very similar.  He also seems to avoid making gigantic errors, unlike a lot of people I could mention.  Even the apparent contradiction some see in his book claiming each human is simply a tabla rasa arena for barely disguised utilitarianism, followed by another saying we are not just getting nicer but perhaps we are basically nice, doesn't tempt me in (though his first did tempt Elaine...).So instead of trying to pretend he's a load of rubbish, I'll just point out that the very important position on the nature of language he's working from is a lot more subtle and a lot less well understood than many people, even he, appreciates.   Etc... (see text.)  And it means "a bacteria" IS wrong, and there's nothing wrong with those of us who so say so.Image by Rebecca Goldstein and SP via Wikipedia

When I first became aware of Steven Pinker I didn’t think it would be long before I heartily disliked him. But listening to him always reminds me of reading something I’d written myself a while back, then forgotten about. Because we are both experimental psychologists and of the same vintage, I’m obviously going to be able to dispute loads of stuff in the area with him, even though it’s obviously more his speciality. But also, presumably because of the similarities (my personal tutor for my BSc had even studied at McGill), I find our general scientific outlooks are very similar. He also seems to avoid making gigantic errors, unlike a lot of people I could mention. Even the apparent contradiction some see in his book claiming each human is simply a tabla rasa arena for barely disguised utilitarianism, followed by another saying we are not just getting nicer but perhaps we are basically nice, doesn’t tempt me in (though his first did tempt Elaine…).
So instead of trying to pretend he’s a load of rubbish, I’ll just point out that the very important position on the nature of language he’s working from is a lot more subtle and a lot less well understood than many people, even he, appreciates. Etc… (see text.) And it means “a bacteria” IS wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with those of us who so say so.
Image by Rebecca Goldstein and SP via Wikipedia


One subtlety I’m sure he’s missed is that the roots of language may be hard-wired into humans, but that they may also be the rules by which all our percepts and plans are encoded, much of which we share with our relatives, and perhaps not just the apes. (The frontal cortex in the great apes occupies as great a percentage of the the brain as ours does, many people would be surprised to learn.) However, for the subject at hand, another important untruth we do not all hold to be self-evident, is that not every process that is evolutionary or self-directing, is necessarily naturally heading in The Right Direction. “The market will solve everything” some people say. Well, it may sort some things out but it can’t optimise everything for everyone, and no country pretends entirely that it can.

Similarly, no country believes that any old thing that happens in language is OK, since if they did they would abolish teaching English at university, or whatever language they use. The BBC believes anything is just OK in language? Hmm… the news never seems to be read in street-talk, does it – on any channel. What’s the matter? Doesn’t the BBC belive in democratic representation? 😉 . How about infants violating the “correct” usage of commonly used irregular verbs. That definitely isn’t accepted English, but why not count it as “just as good”? They did adopt that line in Turkey.

The fact is we often ride on largely autonomous processes – but we adjust them to suit our needs. It’s natural for horses to walk and run, we just tweak them in the direction we want to go. It’s natural for winds to blow around the planet, but we harness them for our own purposes; you can’t defend only ever going exactly where the horse or the wind want to go just because it’s natural. It’s natural for people to have an urge to fight and kill those apparently opposing what we see as our needs and community goals but we direct those tendencies into armies and discourage their expression amongst our own society. It’s natural for humans to do what has never been done before. We specialise in the unnatural.

And while it is natural to get into the habit of saying “erm” and “kind of”, we weed that out of our language and that of others we can influence because it is inefficient and annoying, and the annoyance it produces adds to the distraction and therefore to the inefficiency.

Pinker explained to Adam Rutherford that words don’t have to keep their same meaning forever. But it’s also important not to insist on letting the language become corrupted (i.e. become less effective) by following and consolidating every error or even every common error made by the relatively inexpert.

Insisting that decimate means (old meaning) is equivalent to insisting that December must be the 10th month of the year. You don’t change the meaning of a word every time you learn a new fact about the world.

But you also don’t change the language every time someone makes a mistake!

So you can do what we all agree ought to be done and treat it as a scientific claim that can be adjudicated by scientific evidence.

And exactly what is this “it” you’re going to investigate using scientific evidence? If “it”’s that language changes, then you’re arguing from the wrong premise… and not to notice that, means you’re the kind of person who shouldn’t be treated as an expert.

These points we shouldn’t have to be making to the BBC:

1: Laissez Faire is not the answer to everything, and every system that seems to have a natural behaviour is not necessarily doing everything the way it should be done. Institutions all over the place, including the BBC, show from their behaviour that they do not really believe pure Laissez Faire is the answer to every issue, even the ones vaguely associated with science.

2: Fairness never stopped being a requirement of the BBC. Their habit of never offering fair debate unless someone goes out of their way to twist their arm over it, deserves punishment.

3: The word “Pedant” is a weasel word that begs many questions wrongly, and insults those contributing the most to sophisticated civilisation. The BBC is itself an example of what wouldn’t be here if people with higher standards than others hadn’t decided to do what hadn’t been done before.

4: If you wheel in an authority it should be to explain something more sophisticated than you’d expect from someone more ordinary – not just to use as a heavyweight to bolster smug and lazy habits.

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2 Responses to “Anything Goes – Good. ‘Pedants’ – Bad”

  1. Luminous Dong says:

    In the Language Instinct, Pinker rehearses the old chestnut that handedness is genetically determined. Darwin himself ruled that out because of the consistent but genetically inexplicable distribution of L & R handed individuals. There can be no possible justification for sleight of intellect here when it is an essential aspect of explaining lateralisation of function to look at somatic asymmetries which, in the case of the Hominins only shows in the pattern of tool use.
    If there were a genomic predisposition to R handedness it would also mean an equivalent predisposition for anatomical variation from bilateral symmetry. What is the resistance to the real possibility that handed behaviour develops in utero and is self reinforcing ?

  2. Hi Luminous –

    I suspect a genomic predisposition to right-handedness would not necessarily lead to loss of any symmetry. We are clearly symmetrical to some extent, and also clearly somewhat asymmetrical. The more detailed folds in the brain for example, differ widely between different sides of the same brain. I don’t think Darwin was in a position to rule anything out involving detailed developmental or inheritance mechanisms since he didn’t know any of the mechanisms.

    Thanks for your comment though!

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