Steven Pinker's list of the 58 most-abused English words and phrases

Mine daughter loved those books.

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Within the research community he used to be part of (i.e, back in the 90s), I have heard him called the David Copperfield of Linguistics. Not the Dickensian one. I preferred the Doug Henning of Linguistics because of the hair, but Henning had a level of creativity and genuine delight to him that makes Copperfield more appropriate. Just as Copperfield can do a 2-hour special that includes 3 illusions, it doesn’t surprise me that Pinker’s book is more than 350 pages. Strunk and White, which it aims to replace, is 105. Strunk’s original was 43 pages, but still included 49 misused words and phrases.


Yes there are. Unimpressed. Amused. There’s not a lot of meaning space that’s not covered by existing words.

Oh, and “melodramatic” does not mean “very dramatic.”


Wow. Impressively prescriptivist for someone who calls himself a linguist.


Hah! For me it’s always been the Simon Rattle of Linguistics for the same reason.

Thank you, Mr. Pinker, but I’d like to crush your list down to one word: “very”. The phrase, “very true”, is not, because truth is truth is truth. There is no “very iconic”, as there are not shades of “iconic”. That is all.

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Some statements are not true at all, some are partially true, some are nearly true, and some may be absolutely true. Some are true enough. Some could be ‘very true’, but the phrase is actually used to provide emphasis, not degree. Stylistically, it’s a bit stuffy, but there are worse things, so I suggest leaving it alone.

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Very interesting and very appreciative of the suggestion, but I very disagree.

I’m very aware of this, and yet, I find it very annoying that everything need to be very emphasized of late. A sunset is no more beautiful with a “very” tacked on to it.

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If you expect people to be very imaginative with their language, I think you’re going to be very disappointed.




People who see ‘vs’ and say it ‘verse’ instead of ‘versus’ make me want to froth at the mouth!


Interesting how book marketing works. The Sense of Style is Pinker’s “latest book” but it’s not new but rather from last year. I guess it must be coming out in paperback now and so has ginned up another round of publicity and thus blog posts.


Perhaps this is addressed in the book but for me the worst linguistic crime of the times is not usage but the addition of completely unnecessary syllables. For instance:

“Was that what you hoped to accomplish?”
“Yes, that was our intentionality.”


“During this program fast forward and other functionality may not be available.”

Don’t say functionality when you mean functions and saying intentionality just makes you sound like a jackass.


The law effected changes at the school.

That’s an incorrect example. It’s the administration (presumably) that effected the changes, and the law affected the school.

Also, there’s no way “tortuous” is misused more often than “acronym”.

That’s why you’re such a shurdloft.


That’s a redundancy. You can pose or raise a question, but if you ask a question, it means you’re posing a question to a question, so you’re probably delirious.

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I call upon Humpty Dumpty in my defense…

If you keep two sets of books, do you get the wonder twin powers of dichotomy AND discrepancy?

Bemused is a word most authors should skip. It sounds like “amused” but means puzzled. A surprising number of authors use it wrong, and you can’t always tell how they mean it by context. If authors mean amused, they should use amused, and if they mean puzzled, they should use puzzled. There is no good reason to use bemused.

Unless you’re a poet. Poets have reasons.