[Coda to a post about Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style .]
Steven Pinker’s catalogue of epithets for the misinformed — schoolmarms, snoots, usage nannies, and so on — is unlikely to win many converts from their ranks. (Who wants to be called names?) A better way to win converts might be to take the approach of some college instructors. When I teach a writing class and dispel various imaginary (and ultimately unhelpful) rules, I tell my students (several times) something like this:
“When it comes to writing instruction, there is a lot of bad advice out there, and a lot of misinformation. Some of it is a matter of made-up rules that might, early on, serve a purpose, like the rule not to begin a sentence with and or but. A ban on those words might reduce the number of sentence fragments a teacher has to correct. But it’s better to learn, at some point, how to use the words correctly and have them in your toolkit of ways to start sentences. Otherwise, you’re limited, like someone who can drive only under thirty miles an hour. You can never get on the highway.And I make a point of showing my students that the instruction I’m offering is “not me” — that all of it can be found, again and again, in sources with far greater authority than mine. The Oxford comma: it’s recommended in all contexts beyond journalism. Placing a new idea at the start of a paragraph: countless guides to writing recommend putting it there, and not in the form of the awkward end-of-paragraph transition that many teachers require of high-school students.
“Why there should be so much bad advice and misinformation about writing is an important question. I think the answer has a lot to do with teachers’ fears and and feelings of inadequacy about their own writing, and of course with misinformation that their teachers passed on to them. It’s unfortunate, but a large part of getting better at writing is unlearning what you were taught earlier on.”
It’s easier to persuade someone that what you’re saying is true and useful if you can keep from calling them stupid.
[It bears repeating: ill-founded prohibitions against split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions and the like are derided by the very authorities on usage whom Pinker disparages.]