Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is an outspoken critic of poor academic writing. He suggests that style guides, such as Strunk & White, are more driven by the idiosyncratic views of the authors, rather than a coherent theory of language. Pinker instead suggests that we can do better, using linguistic studies, cognitive psychology research and other inputs to create a better model for effective prose.

In the lecture below, Pinker gives historical perspective (we learn that “clever” apparently means something different when used to describe a horse) and walks the viewer through his suggestions for improving prose, with many, many entertaining examples of bad habits. You’ll learn why the passive voice is actually really useful, and why it’s so common in bad writing.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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7 Thoughts on "Speech is Instinctive, Writing is Hard"

I highly recommend this video for those who are interested in good writing. Even with its 54 minute length, I found it worth my time. My things to David for bringing it to my attention.

The example about the Big Bang piece of prose is a piece bad journalism. (Why is the journalism so good?) It is harmful because it gives the reader a wrong notion. There is no physical theory that considers a finite 3D Universe. The Universe of the physical theories is infinite even at the smallest time after the Big Bang. Very dense but infinite. The speck analogy is wrong. The lecture himself is a victim. The 1 divided by 0 analogy is right, though.

Needful issues to raise. Thanks for the learning and for the providing of the learning here–thanks, David Crotty, for posting the video, that is. Passive voice is good when we say (maybe e-mail) something such as, “Someone has been eating all the doughnuts” at work or home or, more urgently at work, “Somebody forgets to lock the office door just about every night.” No blame’s assigned–only an exigent need for things to change. Is passive weak? Often, it’s prudent.

This is not the passive voice; this is simply lack of specification of the agent of the verb, which is often (but not always) a feature of the passive as well. Passives are sentences such as these:

Doughnuts have been eaten.
The office door has been left unlocked.

Where the patient of the verb is in subject position, and the agent is left unstated. You can add a by-phrase to either of these (e.g. “by mice” in the first case, “by the cleaning staff” in the second) and the agent is specified, but the result is still a passive.

More here: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.pdf

See the section on “The Language Wars”, starting just after minute 42 of the video.

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