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On the one hand, we have the mavens, like William Safire, and, on the other, the academics, like Steven Pinker. If you don't know who these writers are, not to worry: I adhere to neither the prescriptivist nor the descriptivist faction.

It's very hard for me to read William Safire's columns in The New York Times. As a former speechwriter for the Nixon White House, his political views are, not surprisingly, unpalatable, but it's his "Word Watch" that drives me crazy, whenever I read it. Mr Safire wrestles with the variant usage of hip terms and vogue words until he's nailed down definitions that he's happy with, but the artful arrangement of these or other words means very little to him. I would not be surprised to discover that he listens to very little music of any kind.

As for Mr Pinker, he appears to believe, in his book The Language Instinct (Harper Perennial, 1995), that it doesn't really matter much how you say something as long as you're understood. By his reckoning, speakers of Creole and Pidgin are no less eloquent than the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. Aside from being anti-elitist nonsense, this shows that, despite their many differences, Mr Pinker shares Mr Safire's lack of interest in genuinely articulate language.

The word articulation comes from the Greek word for 'joint.' It's a cousin of arthritis and arthropod, and for most people it seems to be almost as big a nuisance as sore joints and bugs. The Romans took articulatim to mean something like our 'piecemeal' originally, but Cicero used it to signify 'properly divided,' and so far as words go, that's what 'articulation' has meant ever since. Former students of a certain age will remember the tedium of diagramming sentences, the purpose of which exercise was to show how each part of a sentence, and each word in each part, relates to the others. I don't believe that it's possible to grasp such concepts as 'subordinate clause' without analyzing (breaking down) sentences somehow; without a good grasp, such concepts  are bound to look like dispensable, fancypants conundrums.

Anybody who has written code knows the power of syntax. Language spoken among people isn't quite so inflexible, but it's even more suggestive, and just as the good programmer writes as economically as possible - with the triple objective of accelerating the processing, making the code easier to debug, and pursuing elegance - so the clear speaker and writer hew to syntactical guidelines in order to assure that listeners and readers will be exposed to the full complexity of thought with the least confusion. This isn't necessarily a matter of keeping sentences short. It's often useful to make explicit the pronouns and pleonasms that colloquial speech omits, because inclusion actually speeds the reader along. (See Missing Term.)

As every eager reader knows. (June 2001)

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