March 5, 2021

If you follow my work, you may know that I have been promoting a mission for writers during this period of pandemic, recession and social unrest. I have called upon public writers — not just journalists — to strive for “civic clarity.” Writers can achieve that effect only if they take responsibility for what readers know and understand.

I write it. You read it. You get it. You act on it. You pass it on to others.

There are countless obstacles to achieving civic clarity. An important one has been named by public scholar Steven Pinker. He calls it “the curse of knowledge.” His cures for that curse appear in his 2014 book “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.”

In a 2009 book review in The New York Times, Pinker once described the popular author Malcolm Gladwell as a “minor genius.” In a response, Gladwell acted as if the designation pleased him, but I had to wonder given the context: “(Gladwell is) a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.”

“Minor genius” stuck in my mind. It never occurred to me that the word “genius” would require modification. (Although George Costanza in a “Seinfeld” episode complains “We mustn’t disturb the delicate genius.” Not sure if I’d rather be a minor genius or a delicate one.)

Maybe the term “minor genius” applied more to Pinker than to Gladwell, the author he was criticizing. Albert Einstein had a better resume, but this one from Pinker’s Amazon page is pretty darn good:

Steven Pinker is one of the world’s leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching, books, and scientific research, Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He also writes frequently for the New York Times, Time, The New Republic, and other magazines.

He also has served as chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, which happens to be my favorite feature in my favorite dictionary. While slightly envious of his record, I am more jealous of his head full of wavy silver hair, which I would be delighted to rent from him — just for a weekend.

I do admire public scholars, the ones who can write not just for scholarly journals, but also for op-ed pages in newspapers; the ones who can speak, not just in the dialect of their intellectual tribes, but also in the plain style of democratic discourse. In most cases, Pinker is one of those.

It must be noted that with his growing public profile and influence has come a cadre of critics. From both academic circles and social media, Pinker has found himself in the middle of debates and controversies, the most public ones involving issues of gender and race, and one bizarre one involving the late Jeffrey Epstein.

In addition to his study of language, Pinker is known for two other moves. The first move is what I would call benevolent atheism. His scientific mind leads him to the conclusion that there is no God or afterlife; but it also leads him to acknowledge the mysteries of the universe and the moral imperatives required for human survival.

His second move is this: He believes in human progress. Two of his books, heavy with data, make a case that human beings are better off now than ever, that anyone who can’t remember a worse moment in history either has a bad memory or has not lived long enough. Hey kids, if you think 2018 or 2020 was bad, try 1968. Or 1918.

Pinker’s gold coins

Pinker’s minor genius fills the pages of “The Sense of Style.” True to his title, Pinker displays a sense of style, and he honors us with paragraphs such as this:

An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.

When I think about the experience of reading good writing, I return again and again to the parable of the gold coins, introduced to me by my friend and mentor Don Fry. Imagine you are walking down a forest path and come upon a gold coin. You pick it up and put it in your pocket. You walk a mile and find another. Most walkers would keep walking until they are sure the gold coins have run out.

So it is with reading a story. It may open with a gold coin, but can you be assured of more? Or have you experienced a kind of bait and switch, where a sparkling anecdote drew you in only to lead you down a path of boredom, with no more rewards in sight?

If you are walking through Pinker’s text, you will find many gold coins to be pocketed, not just to be saved, but to be invested in your own writing:

  • That the aspiring writer must learn to read like a writer, turning appreciation into a technical reverse engineering to learn how the parts work together to make meaning.
  • That new knowledge is best understood by the reader when it flows from old knowledge, building into a coherent whole.
  • That “a writer must overcome the curse of knowledge — the difficulty we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something we know.”

By all means, reach in to “The Sense of Style” for a handful of gold coins. Reach, but with this caution: Be ready for some coins, made out of lead, to stick to your fingers.

Pinker’s lead coins

A lead coin is a currency that looks like it might have practical value, but when it comes time to cash it in, no matter how hard you try, you get nothing in return.

I was left with the problem of reading a minor genius who may, on occasion, suffer from the malady he wants us to avoid: the curse of knowledge.

In framing his advice, Pinker makes a daring choice. He is a scholar, scientist, linguist and expert on cognition and the human brain. In other words, his knowledge base is much wider than mine. Mine includes knowledge of literature, journalism, rhetorical grammar and the teaching of writing (not to mention professional wrestling, the Three Stooges, and The Beatles).

Pinker’s tapping into his vast knowledge base could be considered a giant step forward in the teaching and learning of writing. That giant step includes the rejection of old nonsense — and, to some extent, the replacement of traditional grammatical categories and definitions.

Pinker’s bible is a reference book called The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. It is the work of a team of 15 linguists, led by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. According to Pinker, “It uses modern linguistics to provide a systematic analysis of virtually every grammatical construction in English. The terminology and analyses in this book are based on the Cambridge Grammar.”

To test the viability of this shift, let’s sample, in Pinker’s glossary, the definition of definiteness: “A semantic distinction marked by the determiner of a noun phrase, indicating whether the content of the head noun is sufficient to identify the referent in context.” This governs, I think, why the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley chose to revise the title of his poem from “To the Skylark” to “To a Skylark.” But, boy, what a thorny path to travel.

The Greeks and Romans gave us countless technical words to describe certain rhetorical moves. It helps to know the difference between a metaphor and a simile; between litotes (understatement) and hyperbole (exaggeration). So, yes, develop your critical vocabulary of practical language use. The problem, captured in a different context by Oscar Wilde, is that “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Chapter four of “The Sense of Style” is titled: “The Web, the Tree, and the String,” with the subtitle: “Understanding syntax can help a writer avoid ungrammatical, convoluted, and misleading prose.” I am ready to learn all of that.

Pinker begins with reference to a traditional method of syntax learning — one I practiced for years in Catholic schools — called diagramming sentences. The chapter moves from the old school to illustrate ways that contemporary linguists describe sentences, especially using structures that look like webs and trees. It argues that knowledge of such sentence structures might prevent you from making common grammatical mistakes, such as “The bridge to the islands are crowded.” I have made this mistake many times. I call it “the trap.” The proximity of the plural “islands” to the verb contaminates it. The subject of the sentence is “bridge,” which takes the singular.

The elaborate schematics offered by Pinker may be better than those that made English feel like Latin — a dead language. But they risk turning hot language issues into cold geometric structures. You don’t have to be a genius — major or minor — to learn them.

But I will testify that I had to read chapter four several times, marking it up in the margins, before I gave up the enterprise. More than one long technical paragraph I marked as “dense.” I can’t remember a thing I learned in the effort that I can use myself or teach another writer, now, at this minute.

Because I couldn’t do it does not mean that you can’t. The more ambitious you are about learning the technical aspects of grammar and syntax, the more you could and should give it a try. Don’t let those lead coins weigh you down. There is gold in them there (other) chapters.

Overcoming the ‘curse of knowledge’

What are some practical methods for overcoming the “curse of knowledge”? They are some of the same tools that help the writer achieve civic clarity:

  1. Create a short mission statement for your work, whether it is a report or story, a short essay or a book. Describe what you hope to accomplish — the why and the how.
  2. Imagine your reader as a curious person who is eager to learn, but needs specific evidence on the path to new knowledge.
  3. Slow down the pace of information: shorter words, sentences, paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
  4. Make a list of the technical words you now know about a subject and either teach those words to your reader — or translate them when you can.
  5. Maintain a corps of test readers. It may include a teacher or an editor, but also friends who have not yet achieved your level of knowledge of a subject. Read the work aloud to them. See if they get it.
  6. You will never achieve perfect civic clarity. But you can use additional writing — on social media, perhaps — to respond to reader questions not answered in the original story.
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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