Senseless Style, Ctd

A reader shakes his head at Nathan Heller’s harsh appraisal of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style :

Heller seems entrapped in conventional but uninformed assumptions about language that don’t really endure being questioned well. Language is not a fixed, absolute thing.  In a way, language is the ultimate free-market commodity.  It changes in accordance with the whims and interests of its speakers, heeding no regulation. (Just observe the futile efforts of L’Académie française to tell the French how to speak French.) School-taught standard languages and rules such as those that Professor Pinker takes issue with try to freeze a language at an arbitrary point in time, or even a mishmash of several arbitrary points, that has no practical reason to be taken as authority. English went from “Oþlice on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam casere Augusto,” to “And it came to passe in those dayes, that there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus,” in about 500 years. Even that later translation looks a little funny to a modern reader, and it the gulf would seem greater if we heard if spoken using early-17th-century pronunciation.

Another takes issue with Robert Lane Greene’s criticism of Heller:

It doesn’t follow from simply saying “logic” and “consistency” mean different things to different to people that therefore there is no correct meaning of “logic” or “consistency” independent of anyone’s feelings about it.  To admit a pluralist logic is to forfeit the ability to make any arguments for or against anything that rise above sheer expression of will.

Another reader snarks on a related post about writing style:

Ben Myers may be “laboring to achieve good short sentences,” but with sentences like this, he’s got plenty left to do:

At any rate, whatever the source of this malaise, the symptoms are evident in the tendency of students to obfuscate simple ideas through a complexification of syntax, a multiplication of imprecise verbs instead of the selection of the one strong verb, and a deliberate substitution of polysyllabic words whose meanings are often vague and slippery for smaller ones whose meanings are plain and solid.

A more cynical reader:

Mr. Myers advocates simplicity and clarity in writing without demonstrating any of these qualities in his own prose, which he duly acknowledges in his self-effacing close. That said, may I suggest that simplicity, clarity, and explanation in writing mean very little without simplicity, clarity, and understanding in thought?

Most education today is driven by a market mentality. Why wouldn’t teachers want to help students learn to “obfuscate simple ideas through a complexication of syntax,” when that’s exactly what will gain one access to any of the white-collar professions? The entrance to the door of the legal, medical, political, financial, and scholastic professions could easily read: “Enter those who have mastered the implementation of  a multiplication of imprecise verbs instead of the selection of the one strong verb, and a deliberate substitution of polysyllabic words whose meanings are often vague and slippery for smaller ones whose meanings are plain and solid.”  It seems Mr. Meyers is unaware of his own egalitarian impulses, as he speaks of students class-based shame, but has not reached the clarity in his on mind before putting pen to paper.