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Literary Hazing “Ain’t” Ethical

By Rachel Hanebutt
13 Oct 2014

That’s right. This post has the word “ain’t” in its title. So what?

In a recent interview, Harvard University Professor of Psychology and celebrated writer, Stephen Pinker, explains the “curse of knowledge,” and his perspective that academia has placed too many old-ruled restrictions on how writers should or should not write. Explaining that the word “ain’t,” for example, is the product of an upper class tendency to use “isn’t,” instead, Pinker notes that this stigmatization became a rule, rather than being left up to one’s literary license.

Pinker also explains that without “reading between the lines,” or viewing others’ works with some degree of charity, there would be no possibility of conversation. In other words, there must be some sort of cooperation between the speaker and the listener; a cooperation that does not always have to abide by a strict list of do’s and don’ts.

Speaking about dangling modifiers, hedging, and many other types of literary no-no’s, Stephen Pinker finds that many of these rules contradict ways of writing which might be more effective in this day and age. Pinker even goes as far as to critique the oath of office, which uses split infinitives that even Judge Roberts wanted to un-split.  Pinker explains that society legitimates the rules of words which have been written in the past, over the rules we might think are correct or proper now.  Judge Roberts had to reread the oath in the “correct” way for it to be “legitimate.”

He also discovers that many “great writers” have used these rules incorrectly in their own work as well.  Attributing the stickler mentality of “proper” English to a psychology of hazing, Pinker suggests that because established writers had to abide by these grammar rules and usage guides, they think that today’s writers should, too; an initiation process of sorts.

Maybe there’s a reason, however, that today’s writers and word artists don’t abide by these rules.  Stephen Pinker certainly thinks there are some grammar rules we don’t need to follow.

Is it unethical to force writers to use specific grammar guides and literary usages in order to be considered legitimate? Or should we agree with “esteemed” writers that literary hazing ain’t wrong?

Rachel graduated from DePauw in 2015 and was a Political Science and Education Studies major from Huntingburg, Indiana. She received a Master's from the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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