Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Flossy Harvard Professor Needs Remediation

Professor Pinker:

You need to hear from your readers. We should be like that guy who stood behind the conquering hero on the chariot as the hero entered Rome in triumph and whispered into his ear, “Remember, you are only a man.”

You almost had a convert for The Language Instinct's contention that we are born language adepts, that our parents get no credit for our speaking. You contend language is all there in our heads: subjects, verbs, phrases, clauses, the whole pitter patter of talk.

Then I got to the last chapter but one in which you attack language mavens. I'm one. I taught English in a community college close to my home for twenty-eight years. It was close enough that I could get home to greet my four children as they returned from school—to whom, according to you, I helped not a whit to learn to speak.

I don't think you know what you are talking about in your attacks on grammar mavens. To show how fusty your erudition is, you start with condemning the moss-grown split-infinitive and terminal-preposition lore about which teachers in little schools in the rural fastness of my home state, Georgia, regale the children of peach farmers. Then you lapse into some fiddlefaddle about pronoun case's being whacko and must yield to your skepticism, I say, sir, that “whom” will last far longer than “youm. The formidable Fowler endorses “whom.” Curme goes on for pages about it. Both outrank you.

You prance around lauding descriptive language as opposed to maven prescriptive language. One supposes that swashbuckling pose makes you think to look cool to nubile teaching assistants. Don't kid yourself, professor. It makes you look hypocritical because you use prescriptive language in this and every book you publish. You probably emailed the University of Chicago mavens' grammar site to help you with footnoting and bibliography cuneiform.

You advise people to avoid passive verbs but then festoon your book with passive verbs.

Not only that , you are shaky on commas. I may have to write your boss in the Harvard psycholinguistics-intergalactic department to assign you exercises in your grammar primer. And you use too many words.

Let's get down to work:

447: ...and I would be surprised if there were differences in design between them.
Passive verb edit: Different designs between them would surprise me.
198: At this point some of the meaning of the sentence must be inferred.
Passive verb: One must infer some of the meaning of the sentence at this point.

434: That is, the “similarity” Possessive before the gerund guiding the child's generalization has to be an analysis of speech to nouns and verbs and phrases, Redundant comma cutting off a restrictive past participial phrase computed by the Universal Grammar built into the learning mechanisms. Wordy sentence 44 words

Edit: The similarity's guiding the child's generalization must be Universal grammar's analysis of speech to nouns, verbs, and phrases built into learning mechanisms. 23 words

Without such innate computation Possessive before gerund defining which sentence is similar to which other ones, the child would have no way of correctly generalizing—any sentence is “similar,” in one sense, to nothing but a verbatim repetition, of itself, and also “similar,” to any random rearrangement of the words, and “similar,” in still other senses, to all kinds of other inappropriate word strings. 64 words

I don't know how you justify the quotation marks around “similar.”

The structure of this sentence makes reading it feel like getting whiplash. You should show mercy to the reader: Put the hyphenated interruption into its own sentence.

Edit: Without innate computation's defining which sentence is similar to others, the child can't generalize. Any sentence is “similar” to a verbatim repetition of itself; similar to random rearrangement of the words, and similar to other kinds of appropriate word strings. 14And 26 – 40 words

Is this how those devil-may-care, maven-despising, descriptive linguistics street cats talk these days? You have dropped your descriptive pose and lapsed into a structural quagmire of abused Standard English. People notice that your practice is not coincident with your conviction.

The 64-word metastasis shows no mercy on the reader. Anybody who writes sentences this long must be aces in punctuation. You are not. Break down the sentence as a favor to your readers, who struggle to assimilate the verbs, nouns, phrases, and clauses bouncing around in their heads somewhere near the parietal lobe.

432: A computer is pre-programmed to with the assumptions underlying big competitive sports, so No comma: “so that” is a subordinating conjunction, not a coordinating conjunction. that it will not interpret players' motions as a choreographed dance or a religious ritual.

432:A theory of the universal mind is doubtless going to be as abstractly related to the universal people as X-bay theory is related to a list of universals of word order. 32 words Passive verbs and wordiness:You overuse modifiers.

Edit: A theory of the universal mind relates as abstractly to the universal people as X-bay theory relates to list of word-order universals. 24 words

Children generalize from role models, or from their own behaviors that are rewarded or not, rewarded.16 words

Redundant comma; passive verbs Awkward construction.

Don't put a comma between compound adverbial prepositional phrases.

Edit: Children generalize from role models or from rewarded or unrewarded behavior. 11 words

Perhaps the next time you are in a supermarket you Put one of your redundant commas after “supermarket” to mark an introductory adverbial clause. will look for club soda, one out of the tens of tens of thousands of items that are available, and Don't split a compound verb with a comma. then not touch it until months later when a particular subject and particular object come together.

Roughly, the idea that cognition saturates perception belongs with (and is, indeed, historically connected with) the idea in the philosophy of science that one's observations are comprehensively determined by one's theories; with the idea in anthropology that one's values are comprehensively determined by one's culture; with the idea in sociology that one's epistemic commitments, including especially one's science, are comprehensively determined by one's class affiliations; and with the idea in linguistics that one's metaphysics is comprehensively determined by one's syntax [ire., the Wharton hypothesis—SP], 94 words

I know you try to here to use deliberate repetition for effect, but it doesn't work. The sentence lurches along without style or grace. You have no ear for the music of language, professor. I would steer clear of such contructions.

Edit: In science, that cognition saturates perception belongs with the idea that one's observations determine one's theories; in anthropology that one's culture determines one's values, in sociology that one's class affiliations determine one's epistemic commitments; in linguistics that one's syntax determines ones metaphysics. 42words

The above excerpts present a representative sampling of your style and comma problems. You overuse passive verbs to a faretheewell, you are wordy, and you are not on solid ground with commas. For the last 400 years, commas have waned. When in doubt, leave it out is a good rule.

Don't believe those aesthetes that you write with “acid verve.” Acid verb would scare those rhetorical dandies to death. You try to write with acid verve and come off as Peck's Bad Boy, escaped from the tree house. Write plain English. You can't beat it. Never mind the preciosity puffers at the Atlantic Monthly Atlantic Monthly. If they're so astute, why haven't they written another Divine Comedy? I bet they wear argyle socks and red ties to show how daring they are.

I don't believe you can spot a passive verb. In old-fashioned maven litany, a passive verb is a) a verb phrase; b) the main verb is the past participle; c) one of the helping verbs is a form of “to be”; d) you have in the sentence or can put in “by somebody or by something.” The object of the “by” phrase is your subject in converting the passive to active voice. Be sure to credit me with this epiphany when you get your first Pulitzer.

A Natural History of Rape by Thornhill and Palmer that you defended against the feminist critics amazed my husband and me. These guys convinced us, and I have been a feminist for forty-five years. I read it first, and when my husband took it up, he would scream from his Stratolounger sports vantage at half-time, “Come here and listen to what those damn bugs have grown on their backs by natural selection to trap the bug girls!” The boy bugs are the villains in the rape Olympics. Men pale in comparison. But then in a billion or two more years natural selection will change men's and male bugs' gears so that they stop raping women and female bugs. Geologic time ensures that the girls have time on their side in this matter.

I have two of your books that I got with the language-instinct book. Blank Slate and Words and Rules. I am on to your gambols now and will read with a jaundiced eye. I will also monitor passive verbs, wordiness, and botched commas. You have far to go in those areas, Professor Pinker.

My husband and I both think you have astonishing hair. It reminds us of that of our oldest grandson's, whose Samson hair is such an attraction that it has caused amongst the nubile female genera hereabouts a lightening-fast case of natural selection on the Gulf of Mexico beaches.

I will mount this email on my grammar blog Grammargrinch.blogspot.com to alert people not to trust to the grammar, punctuation, and logic of a Harvard psycholinguistics professor's breezy theories, especially those with Samson coiffures.

I suppose you know you repudiate Darwin's theory in this book. Hubris you don't lack. It matches your hair.

Lee Drury De Cesare
15316 Gulf Boulevard 802

Madeira Beach, FL 33708

c: Professor Chomsky, MIT; Professors Randy Thronhill, University of Mexico, and Craig T. Palmer, University of Colorado


Anonymous Itso K. Tofayle said...

Your correction on 447 is all wrong. He did not write in the passive voice at all. What he wrote is called the active voice in the subjunctive mood.

By the way, I have surmised from this quick scan I have made over your work that you are an ardent fan of the noun clause being used as the subject. Most of your statements begin with "That blah blah blah can't blah blah blah is," while they end with more "blah blah blah." I'd like to compliment you on your hifalutin writing style and grammar knowledge; however, I believe you still need to "hit the books" as we uninformed laymen so colloquially say. After all, if my grammar is not failing me, you were just schooled by an eighteen-year-old with no college education in English conventions.

In all this, I mean no offense. I would respectfully just urge you to have your facts straight before you criticize.

8:48 PM  

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