Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Do people write badly on purpose, to bamboozle their readers with highfalutin gobbledygook? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Should we bring back the lost art of diagramming sentences? Have dictionaries abandoned their responsibility to safeguard correct usage? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care?
In this entertaining and instructive book, the bestselling cognitive scientist, linguist, and writer Steven Pinker rethinks the usage guide for the 21st century. Rather than moaning about the decline of the language, carping over pet peeves, or recycling spurious edicts from the rulebooks of a century ago, he applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose.
Don’t blame the Internet, he says, or the kids today; good writing has always been hard. It begins with savoring the good prose of others. It requires an act of imagination: maintaining the illusion that one is directing a reader’s gaze to something in the world. A writer must overcome the Curse of Knowledge—the difficulty we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something we know. Skillful writers must be sensitive to the ways in which syntax converts a tangled web of ideas into a linear string of words. They must weave their prose into a coherent whole, with one sentence flowing into the next. And they must negotiate the rules of correct usage, distinguishing the rules that enhance clarity and grace from the myths and superstitions (and thus should not be afraid to boldly split their infinitives).
Filled with examples of great and gruesome modern prose, and avoiding the scolding tone and Spartan tastes of the classic manuals, Pinker shows how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right. The Sense of Style is for writers of all kinds, and for readers who are interested in letters and literature and curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.
Language, Cognition, and Human Nature collects together for the first time much of Steven Pinker's most influential scholarly work on language and cognition. Pinker's seminal research explores the workings of language and its connections to cognition, perception, social relationships, child development, human evolution, and theories of human nature.
This eclectic collection spans Pinker's thirty-year career, exploring his favorite themes in greater depth and scientific detail. It includes thirteen of Pinker's classic articles, ranging over topics such as language development in children, mental imagery, the recognition of shapes, the computational architecture of the mind, the meaning and uses of verbs, the evolution of language and cognition, the nature-nurture debate, and the logic of innuendo and euphemism. Each outlines a major theory or takes up an argument with another prominent scholar, such as Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, or Richard Dawkins. Featuring a new introduction by Pinker that discusses his books and scholarly work, this collection reflects essential contributions to cognitive science by one of our leading thinkers and public intellectuals.
"Pinker is an intellectual giant in the field, one of the most important psychologists and thinkers in our day. This compilation is outstanding, a fitting crown on his career so far, although I suspect he has much more to contribute. Even though I'd read a handful of these papers before, there were some that I was unaware of that are gems. Even those I'd read before, I re-read, and got even more on the second reading." -- David Buss, author of Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind
"With wit and acumen, Pinker introduces us to some of his most important scientific contributions. These glimpses into the development of these foundational articles and of course the articles themselves will be of great interest to academics and to his many fans beyond the walls of academia." -- David C. Geary, author of Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Difference
Before Steven Pinker wrote bestsellers on language and human nature, he wrote several technical monographs on language acquisition that have become classics in cognitive science. Learnability and Cognition, first published in 1989, brought together two big topics: how do children learn their mother tongue, and how does the mind represent basic categories of meaning such as space, time, causality, agency, and goals? The stage for this synthesis was set by the fact that when children learn a language, they come to make surprisingly subtle distinctions: pour water into the glass and fill the glass with water sound natural, but pour the glass with water and fill water into the glass sound odd. How can this happen, given that children are not reliably corrected for uttering odd sentences, and they don’t just parrot back the correct ones they hear from their parents? Pinker resolves this paradox with a theory of how children acquire the meaning and uses of verbs, and explores that theory’s implications for language, thought, and the relationship between them.
As Pinker writes in a new preface, “The Secret Life of Verbs,” the phenomena and ideas he explored in this book inspired his 2007 bestseller The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. These technical discussions, he notes, provide insight not just into language acquisition but into literary metaphor, scientific understanding, political discourse, and even the conceptions of sexuality that go into obscenity.
“A monumental study that sets a new standard for work on learnability.”—Ray Jackendoff, Tufts University
“The author's arguments are never less than impressive, and sometimes irresistible, such is the force and panache with which they are deployed.”—Paul Fletcher, Times Higher Education Supplement
“Learnability and Cognition is theoretically a big advance, beautifully reasoned, and a goldmine of information.”—Lila Gleitman, University of Pennsylvania
"A brilliant, mind-altering book....Everyone should read this astonishing book." -The Guardian
We’ve all had the experience of reading about a bloody war or shocking crime and asking, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down. How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment? The key to explaining the decline of violence, Pinker argues, is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence. With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international bestsellers and literary classics, Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.
"A display of fiercely intricate intelligence and nobody with the least interest in language should miss reading it."-The Times (London)
The Stuff of Thought is a revelation. In this exhilarating new book, Steven Pinker analyzes how our words relate to thoughts and to the world around us and reveals what this tells us about ourselves. How does a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies think about love and physics and democracy? Why do we threaten and bribe and seduce in such elaborate, often comical ways? How can a choice of metaphors start a war, impeach a president, or win an election? Why do people impose taboos on topics like sex, excretion, and the divine? What does the peculiar syntax of swearing (just what does the "fuck" in "fuck you" actually mean?) tell us about ourselves? Why do some names thrive while others fall out of circulation? How do we control the amount of information that we absorb? And what good does this actually do us? Pinker answers all these questions and many, many more. He shows us that language really can tell us unexpected and fascinating things about ourselves.
"A provocative and thoroughly enjoyable [collection] from start to finish."—Publishers Weekly
Here is the best and newest on science and nature: the psychology of suicide terrorism, desperate measures in surgery, the weird world of octopuses, Sex Week at Yale, the linguistics of click languages, the worst news about cloning, and much more. Chapters by Scott Atran, Ronald Bailey, Philip M. Boffey, Austin Bunn, Jennet Conant, Daniel C. Dennett, Gregg Easterbrook, Garrett G. Fagan, Jeffrey M. Friedman, Atul Gawande, Horace Freeland Judson, Geoffrey Nunberg, Mike O'Connor, Peggy Orenstein, Virginia Postrel, Jonathan Rauch, Chet Raymo, Ron Rosenbaum, Steve Sailer, Robert Sapolsky, Eric Scigliano, Meredith F. Small, Max Tegmark, and Nicholas Wade.
"Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read... also highly persuasive." —Michael Lemonick, Time
Our conceptions of human nature affect every aspect of our lives, from the way we raise our children to the political movements we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the very idea. They fear that discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert social change, to dissolve personal responsibility, and to strip life of meaning and purpose. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, bestselling author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked dogmas: The Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits), The Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and The Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology). Each dogma carries a moral burden, so their defenders have engaged in the desperate tactics to discredit the scientists who are now challenging them. Pinker tries to inject calm and rationality into these debates by showing that equality, progress, responsibility, and purpose have nothing to fear from discoveries about rich human nature. He disarms even the most menacing threats with clear thinking, common sense, and pertinent facts from science and history. Despite its popularity among intellectuals during much of the twentieth century, he argues, the doctrine of the Blank Slate may have done more harm than good. It denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces hardheaded analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of government, violence, parenting, and the arts.
How does language work? How do children learn their mother tongue? Why do languages change over time, making Shakespearean English difficult for us and Chaucer's English almost incomprehensible? Why do languages have so many quirks and irregularities? Are they all fundamentally alike? How are new words created? Where in the brain does language reside? In Words and Rules, Steven Pinker answers these and many other questions. His new book shares the wit and style of his classic, The Language Instinct, but explores language in a completely different way. In this book, Pinker explains the profound mysteries of language by picking a deceptively single phenomenon and examining it from every angle. The phenomenon—regular and irregular verbs—connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and humanities: the history of languages; the theories of Noam Chomsky and his critics; the attempts to simulate language using computer simulations of neural networks; the illuminating errors of children as they begin to speak; the nature of human concepts; the peculiarities of the English language; major ideas in the history of Western philosophy; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the living brain. Pinker makes sense of all of this with the help of a single, powerful idea: that language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules. The idea extends beyond language and offers insight into the very nature of the human mind. This is a sparkling, eye-opening, and utterly original book by one of the world's leading cognitive scientists.
"Witty, lucid, and ultimately enthralling." —Robert McCrum, The Observer
In this extraordinary book, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading cognitive scientists, does for the rest of the mind what he did for language in his 1994 bestseller The Language Instinct. He explains what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life. And he does it with the wit, clarity, and verve that earned The Language Instinct, worldwide critical acclaim and awards from major scientific societies. Pinker explains the mind by "reverse-engineering" it—figuring out what natural selection designed it to accomplish in the environment in which we evolved. The mind, he writes, is a system of "organs of computation" that allowed our ancestors to understand and outsmart objects, animals, plants, and each other. How the Mind Works explains many of the imponderables of everyday life. Why does a face look more attractive with makeup? How do "Magic-Eye" 3-D stereograms work? Why do we feel that a run of heads makes the coin more likely to land tails? Why is the thought of eating worms disgusting? Why do men challenge each other to duels and murder their ex-wives? Why are children bratty? Why do fools fall in love? Why are we soothed by paintings and music? And why do puzzles like the self, free will, and consciousness leave us dizzy? This arguments in the book are as bold as its title. Pinker rehabilitates unfashionable ideas, such as that the mind is a computer and that human nature was shaped by natural selection. And he challenges fashionable ones, such as that passionate emotions are irrational, that parents socialize their children, that creativity springs from the unconscious, that nature is good and modern society corrupting, and that art and religion are expressions of our higher spiritual yearnings. How the Mind Works presents a big picture, but it is not a personal musing; it is a grand synthesis of the most satisfying explanations of our mental life that have been proposed in cognitive science and evolutionary biology, with insights from disciplines ranging from neuroscience to economics and social psychology. It is also fascinating, provocative, and thoroughly entertaining.
"A brilliant, witty, and altogether satisfying book." —Michael Coe, New York Times Book Review
Everyone has questions about language. Some are from everyday experience: Why do immigrants struggle with a new language, only to have their fluent children ridicule their grammatical errors? Why can't computers converse with us? Why is the hockey team in Toronto called the Maple Leafs, not the Maple Leaves? Some are from popular science: Have scientists really reconstructed the first language spoken on earth? Are there genes for grammar? Can chimpanzees learn sign language? And some are from our deepest ponderings about the human condition: Does our language control our thoughts? How could language have evolved? Is language deteriorating? Today laypeople can chitchat about black holes and dinosaur extinctions, but their curiosity about their own speech has been left unsatisfied—until now. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading scientists of language and the mind, lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, how it evolved. But The Language Instinct is no encyclopedia. With wit, erudition, and deft use of everyday examples of humor and wordplay, Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling theory: that language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution like web-spinning in spiders or sonar in bats. The theory not only challenges convention wisdom about language itself (especially from the self-appointed "experts" who claim to be safeguarding the language but who understand it less well than a typical teenager). It is part of a whole new vision of the human mind: not a general-purpose computer, but a collection of instincts adapted to solving evolutionarily significant problems—the mind as a Swiss Army knife. Entertaining, insightful, provocative, The Language Instinct will change the way you talk about talking and think about thinking. New in 2007: The new “PS” edition contains an update on the science of language since the book was first published, an autobiography, an account of how the book was written, frequently asked questions, and suggestions for further reading.
How are words represented in the mind and woven into sentences? How do children learn how to use words? Currently there is a tremendous resurgence of interest in lexical semantics. Word meanings have become increasingly important in linguistic theories because syntactic constructions are sensitive to the words they contain. In computational linguistics, new techniques are being applied to analyze words in texts, and machine-readable dictionaries are being used to build lexicons for natural language systems. These technologies provide large amounts of data and powerful data-analysis techniques to theoretical linguists, who can repay the favor to computer science by describing how one efficient lexical system, the human mind, represents word meanings. Lexical semantics provides crucial evidence to psychologists, too, about the innate stuff out of which concepts are made. Finally, it has become central to the study of child language acquisition. Infants are not born knowing a language, but they do have some understanding of the conceptual world that their parents describe in their speech. Since concepts are intimately tied to word meanings, knowledge of semantics might help children break into the rest of the language system. Lexical and Conceptual Semantics offers views from a variety of disciplines of these sophisticated new approaches to understanding the mental dictionary.
"A monumental study that sets a new standard for work on learnability." —Ray Jackendoff
In tackling a learnability paradox that has challenged scholars for more than a decade—how children acquire predicate-argument structures in their language—Steven Pinker synthesizes a vast literature in the fields of linguistics and psycholinguistics, and outlines explicit theories of the mental representation, the learning, and the development of verb meaning and verb syntax. He describes a new theory that has some surprising implications for the relation between language and thought.
Does intelligence result from the manipulation of structured symbolic expressions? Or is it the result of the activation of large networks of densely interconnected simple units? Connections and Symbols provides the first systematic analysis of the explosive new field of connectionism that is challenging the basic tenets of cognitive science. These lively discussions by Jerry A. Fodor, Zenon W. Pylyshyn, Steven Pinker, Alan Prince, Joel Lechter, and Thomas G. Bever raise issues that lie at the core of our understanding of how the mind works: Does connectionism offer a truly new scientific model or does it merely cloak the old notion of associationism as a central doctrine of learning and mental functioning? Which of the new empirical generalizations are sound and which are false? And which of the many ideas such as massively parallel processing, distributed representation, constraint satisfaction, and subsymbolic or microfeatural analyses belong together, and which are logically independent? Now that connectionism has arrived with full-blown models of psychological processes as diverse as Pavlovian conditioning, visual recognition, and language acquisition, the debate is on. Common themes emerge from all the contributors to Connections and Symbols: criticism of connectionist models applied to language or the parts of cognition employing language—like operations; and a focus on what it is about human cognition that supports the traditional physical symbol system hypothesis. While criticizing many aspects of connectionist models, the authors also identify aspects of cognition that could be explained by the connectionist models.
How do we recognize objects? How do we reason about objects when they are absent and only in memory? How do we conceptualize the three dimensions of space? Do different people do these things in different ways? And where are these abilities located in the brain? During the past decade cognitive scientists have devised new experimental techniques; researchers in artificial intelligence have devised new ways of modeling cognitive processes on computers; neuropsychologists are testing new models of brain organization.. Many of these developments are represented in this collection of essays. The papers, though reporting work at the cutting edge of their fields, do not assume a highly technical background on the part of readers, and the volume begins with a tutorial introduction by the editor, making the book suitable for specialists and non-specialists alike.
"A fiercely reasoned, bently written landmark of psychological science." —Roger Brown
This classic study is still the only comprehensive theory of child language acquisition—one that begins with the infant, proceeds step by step according to explicit learning algorithms, mirrors children's development, and ends up with adult grammatical competence. Now reprinted with new commentary by the author that updates of every section, Language Learnability and Language Development continues to be an indispensible resource in developmental psycholinguistics.