linguistics and lexicography Love English

Appraising Pinker’s prescriptions

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesIn September I took the UK Independent to task for publishing a misleading set of ‘words you’re using wrong’. These listicles usually mix legitimate facts with myths, misinformation and pet peeves without much basis in the evidence of how people use English. Instead they rely on fallacy, fancy, bogus rules and dogma to tell people they’re using certain words wrong. This sort of thing is very common and generally unhelpful.

The same website has since supplied a similar listicle – but with an interesting difference. This one offers not the usual nitpicking pedantry but the opinions of a linguist who in previous articles and books has deplored petty prescriptivism: Steven Pinker. The Independent’s list of 58 ‘commonly misused words and phrases’ is adapted from Pinker’s recent book The Sense of Style and appeared earlier in Business Insider.

Pinker’s list is more constructive than most. Many of the items he highlights are genuine errors and less well known than typical examples. He flags tricky pairs like adverse and averse, flaunt and flout, mitigate and militate, and tortuous and torturous – all of which I see confused in unedited (and sometimes edited) writing. He also gives solid guidance on foreign plurals like phenomena and criteria.

In other respects, Pinker’s advice seems unnecessarily strict. The article describes irregardless as ‘not a word but a portmanteau of regardless and irrespective’, which makes no sense. If it’s a portmanteau then by definition it is a word. This might not be Pinker’s precise position, but his tweet (‘in which I take a rare stance of language purism’) suggests that he stands over it.

The article insists that begs the question ‘does not mean raises the question’. But outside of philosophical contexts, it nearly always does – whether you like it or not. And it says literally ‘does not mean figuratively’ – but people seldom if ever use it that way: the disputed use is when literally intensifies something that may be figurative.

The article says fulsome ‘does not mean full or copious’ – but it can. It says refute ‘does not mean to allege to be false’ and ‘must be used only in factual cases’ – but this is a preference, not an accurate description of how refute is used. Disinterested, we’re told, ‘means unbiased and does not mean uninterested’, but in fact the word commonly has both meanings – and despite claims of ambiguity, these multiple senses don’t generally interfere with clear communication.

So while Pinker’s prescriptions contain more sensible and factual material than is usually the case in lists like this, he – or the journalist on his behalf – still strays into inaccuracy and wish-fulfilment. As ever, lists of ‘words you’re using wrong’ should be approached with considerable caution and a few good usage dictionaries for fact-checking.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • One thing I can’t help noticing is the number of items that I have never heard of anyone confusing. This is the first time I’ve heard of anyone using “bemused” to mean “amused” or “credible” to mean “credulous”, for example.

    I have never before encountered the word “militate” (which allegedly some people use “mitigate” to mean), and had to look it up.

    We’d be here all night if I listed all the definitions I don’t quite agree with. I’ve mentioned some of them already.

    The definition given for “ironic” (uncannily incongruent) is better than many, but it’s a slippery term to define. Many sources loosely define irony as “opposite of what you would expect”, yet ironic things characteristically trigger a cynical “that’d be right” response.

    “Nonplussed” means approximately the same as the inability to even. I sometimes wonder why more people haven’t pointed this out.

    The hardest thing about commenting on this topic is deciding what to leave out.

  • Thanks for your comment, Adrian. I think bemused is used to mean ‘amused’ quite often; the American Heritage Dictionary provides a usage note on it, and if you Google the two words you’ll find a lot of comparative discussion on grammar and usage websites. Militate for ‘mitigate’ is one I see regularly enough in casual writing and also occasionally in theses I edit or proofread. I mentioned it in passing in my older post on flout and flaunt.
    As for the difficulty in deciding what to leave out: I wholly agree. It’s one reason I tend to favour the larger, more comprehensive usage dictionaries that allow space not only to discuss entries thoroughly but to include entries often overlooked by the more Greatest Hits–type guides (which nonetheless have their own merits).

  • I think everyone is using “bemused” at variance to its original meaning.

    It means “inspired to eloquence, in the manner of the muses” as in Pope’s “much bemused in beer”.

    I presume this is the first usage, and it was pretty much instantly misunderstood and took on its current meaning.

  • Pope’s “A Parson, much be-mus’d in Beer”, 1734, is the first citation in the OED, but the word may be older than that. I don’t know when exactly the variant senses developed, but the traditional ‘confused, bewildered’ sense hasn’t disappeared, and some dictionaries include yet another sense, ‘to absorb or engross’. Grammarphobia has a useful historical summary.

  • I now realise I’m a bit out of my depth on this!

    However, this is quite interesting. An earlier use by Pope, and the spelling suggests that on this occasion he definitely had the Greek Muses in mind, though perhaps just to make it clear he was punning on the two meanings.

    As for the derivation of bemused, Smith’s “taken by a muse” has a grain of truth – but the story is much more complicated. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, bemuse was first used by Alexander Pope, in 1705: “Poets . . . are irrecoverably be-Mused.” But this looks like a pun: Poets are seized by the Muse, one of the Greek goddesses of the arts; and they are thus inspired to muse – to meditate, comtemplate, and wonder. (The Greek muse and the English verb are etymologically unrelated.)

    Anyway, more complicated than what I said.

  • John: That’s what I meant by it, yes – I assumed it was a familiar idiom in standard English, but apparently it isn’t. Searching Google for “I stand over what I said”, which is a phrase I hear quite regularly in one form or another, I see it occurs almost exclusively on Irish websites: discussion forums, news sites reporting direct speech, and the like. Interesting!

  • Mainly I agree with your reservations about Pinker’s asseverations, though I think you suffer from a severe case of lexicologist’s open-mindedness. ‘Refute’ however, the ill-treatment of which drives me really if not literally nuts, is a word that it is worth trying to reclaim, because no other word will do the same job – ‘rebut’ is too feeble and not overwhelming enough, as are contradict, reject, &c.

    Incidentally Pinker was also wrong about ‘parameter’: it does have a genuine sense meaning ‘limit’: the point about it is that the limits can be changed in a different context (change of underlying data, e.g. abscissa, change of equation of a curve to form a class, &c.)

  • Hearing about a person who is being linguistically prescriptive often arouses my sympathy toward them. For many of the usages they proscribe, I feel myself agreeing with them. But in analyzing my motives, I always find a mean, self-serving undercurrent. I like to feel superior to someone who uses the “incorrect” word, and take petty joy in pouncing on him or her, if only in my own thoughts. I can indulge in secret conservatism, while being to all appearances just the opposite. I also have an urge to perpetuate the distinctions between “correct” and “incorrect” usages, for fear of reducing the number of items I can pounce on. The urge to be prescriptive is seductive, I think for those reasons, and resisting it is only intellectually satisfying–very dry biscuits, indeed.

  • Stan, John: as a standard English speaker and the person who has the pleasure of editing Stan’s posts I was also brought up short by ‘stands over it’, which I had never encountered before. I let it stand (and didn’t even query it with Stan) because its meaning seemed completely clear. I love it when I come across new forms of expression in the various varieties of English. There’s a lot more on Irish English here

  • A.R.: I’ll admit to ‘lexicologist’s open-mindedness’; whether it’s a ‘severe’ case depends on one’s point of view, I suppose. In my earlier post on the use of refute, I called it a distinction worth observing – while acknowledging the etymological fallacy and the (irrefutable) popularity of the ‘looser’ usage. This seems in accordance with the facts and with good practice. Incidentally, your use of the phrase ‘really if not literally nuts’ points to essentially the same issue of semantic drift and acceptability. Really has just gone further into legitimate use as an intensifier than has literally. Thanks for the helpful note on parameter.

    Ward: I’d agree with much of that. Years ago I was considerably more prescriptive than I am now, and my reasons were often ignoble or at least unfounded. Without doing considerable research on a given contentious item, it’s very natural to accept the guidance of usage authorities – even, unwisely, a single one. But those authorities have biases and presumptions of their own that they may not be wholly aware of or forthcoming about.

    I wrote a post on my own blog about reconciling descriptivism and editing that may help clarify my position.

    Liz: Thank you. I love learning things like this too. The phrase’s Irishness was hiding in plain sight all these years.

  • 1. refute.
    a) Thanks for your reply. I am not entirely convinced by earlier Scots usage (citation ?), since English and Scots remained fairly separate in lots of ways for a long time (till new philosophy, in the form of railways, canals and improved roads, not to mention a new constitutional settlement, called all into, if not doubt, at least into hotchpotch), The St Werberger use is the only one cited by OED and its obsolescence suggests it did not find favour

    Unfortunately I do not have access to Macmillan dictionary in full, so cannot see the 19C uses you refer to in your earlier note. But like you, I think its consistent use over centuries to mean disprove is valuable, and I would not set out to confute you. However ‘really if not literally’ was meant as a joke: clearly so poor a one, that I hereby apologize for all past jokes and will make no more here in future. Selah!

  • A.R.: I figured that ‘really if not literally’ was meant as a joke, but it did also serve to illuminate the issue, hence the direction I took it in.

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