Have Strunk & White saddled us with a grammar more suited to a different century? Earlier this week, Harvard University psycholinguistic professor Steven Pinker stopped by with his new book, The Sense of Style, to make a case for rolling back the pedantic rigidity of the English language. In his dressing down, Pinker questions whether writers should choose "a fancy word that just sounds like a highfalutin word," and condemns the sludgy lexicon that has become popular with writers, when perhaps more simple language would craft a more eloquent and effective point.
Boston Globe columnist and noted curmudgeon, Alex Beam, had a different take on the possibilities and potential of grandiloquent language. Despite admitting a "soft spot" for Steven Pinker and his "great hair," Beam squarely aligned himself with the unapologetically verbose. "Pinker needs to look to his duty of education," Beam argued, finding Pinker's call for simplicity "absolutely inane, jejune, and ill-thought-out." Instead of "trying to raise the level of intellectual discourse," Beam scoffs, Steven Pinker is lowering it.
"Pinker, of all people! A prestigious academic! I don’t care if he teaches at Curry College, I want the man or woman teaching at Curry College to make as his or her mission to improve the intellectual disposition and atmosphere of his or her students," Beam leveled.
Maybe writers have responded to chat language and microblogging by deploying increasingly bombastic and borderline inaccessible language, but maybe exploring the particularities of that language, both in connotation and in fundamentals isn't so much of a burden as a challenge. Maybe one man's sludgy writing is another woman's honest-to-goodness poetry.