Scolds And Braggarts

Steven Pinker is interviewed about his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century:

Many purists have remarkably little curiosity about the history of the language or the scholarly tradition of examining issues and usage. So a stickler insists that we never let a participle dangle, that you can’t say, “Turning the corner, a beautiful view awaited me,” for example. They never stopped to ask, “Where did that rule come from and what is its basis?” It was simply taught to them and so they reiterate it.

But if you look either at the history of great writing and language as it’s been used by its exemplary stylists, you find that they use dangling modifiers all the time. And if you look at the grammar of English you find that there is no rule that prohibits a dangling modifier. If you look at the history of scholars who have examined the dangling modifier rule, you find that it was pretty much pulled out of thin air by one usage guide a century ago and copied into every one since, And you also find that lots of sentences read much better if you leave the modifier dangling.

Meanwhile, Cass Sunstein flags some findings about another irritating behavior:

New research by social scientists Irene Scopelliti, George Loewenstein and Joachim Vosgerau offers a powerful explanation for why people undermine their own goals, and create a seriously negative impression, by bragging. In a nutshell, braggarts project their own emotions onto the person they’re talking to.

The researchers tested this hypothesis by asking about 50 people to describe a situation in which they had bragged. They asked these “self-promoters” to say whether they felt positive or negative emotions while they were bragging, and also to say whether they thought those who heard them felt positive or negative emotions. At the same time, the researchers asked about 50 other people to describe a situation in which someone had bragged to them. They asked these “recipients” to say whether they felt good or bad while they listened.

The self-promoters greatly underestimated the recipients’ negative feelings. They figured that slightly more than a quarter of people reacted negatively to their bragging when, in fact, almost three-quarters of recipients said they did so. These differences mirror another finding — that most self-promoters felt positive emotions while they were bragging. Only a small minority of recipients of bragging said they felt good during the experience.