Senseless Style?

Nathan Heller savages Steven Pinker’s writing guide The Sense of Style, arguing that its arguments against prescriptivism “justify bad habits that certain people would rather not be bothered to unlearn”:

Some skimmings from the final part of Pinker’s book ran in the Guardian last month, under the provocative headline “10 ‘Grammar Rules’ It’s OK To Break (Sometimes).” It is a brazen document. Armed with examples from pop culture and from the literary canon, Pinker tries to shoot down some basic principles of English grammar (such as the distinction between “who” and “whom”), some looser stylistic preferences (such as the recommendation against splitting infinitives), and some wholly permissible things widely rumored to be wrong (such as beginning sentences with “but” or “and”). …

Too often, Pinker makes choices about usage on aesthetic grounds. He says that his new rules are graceful, but the standards of grace seem to be mainly his own. It’s for grammatical consistency, not beauty or gentilesse, for example, that correct English has us say “It was he” instead of “It was him.” Pinker calls this offense “a schoolteacher rule” that is “a product of the usual three confusions: English with Latin, informal style with incorrect grammar, and syntax with semantics.” He’s done crucial research on language acquisition, and he offers an admirable account of syntax in his book, but it is unclear what he’s talking about here. As he knows, the nominative and accusative cases are the reason that we don’t say gibberish like “Her gave it to he and then sat by we here!” No idea is more basic to English syntax and grammar. In the phrase “It was he,” “it” and “he” are the same thing: they’re both the subject, and thus nominative. This is not “Latin.” (Our modern cases had their roots in tribal Germanic.)

Robert Lane Greene objects to that line of criticism:

Logic and consistency are, of course, good things. But both words mean different things to different people, and sometimes the goals conflict. For Mr Heller, it is “logical” that “was” should be like a grammatical equals sign. So if the subject of the sentence It was he is nominative, so should the pronoun in the predicate be: it = he. But case systems don’t care about invisible equals signs. In French, this construction is forbidden: the French say c’est moi, not c’est je, using a special set of pronouns (usually called “emphatic”) rather than the nominative ones. Nobody accuses the language of Pascal and Descartes of being any less logical than English.

In Danish, it is det er mig (“it is me”), using the accusative pronoun, not det er jeg (”it is I”). And yet no one says the language of Kierkegaard is a confusing mess. And it just so happens that the ancestors of the Danes and the French conquered England, contributing to the language’s mixed nature. It is me didn’t show up in writing until the 15th century, and so may not come directly from those languages. But contact between speakers of different languages did give English a habit of accepting different ways of saying things, such as both the king’s son (typically Germanic) and the son of the king (typically French). In any case, variety is not the same thing as the “complexity, ambiguity and doubt” Mr Heller fears.

Previous Dish on The Sense of Style here and here.