FOURTEEN years ago Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, published in this magazine a piece called "The Decline of Grammar," which dealt with the conflict between the judgmental and nonjudgmental approaches to questions of correctness in language usage -- the war between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. His article drew one of the greatest volumes of reader response that the editors of The Atlantic Monthly had seen in years. Most of the other burning public issues of fourteen years ago have receded: we are not now much concerned about the possibility of nuclear war, or a Russian attack on Western Europe, or the insidious effect of inflation in undermining the economy. But the fierce interest in language usage remains as strong as ever. The most recent evidence of its perennial fascination for us is the range of reaction accorded last year's appearance of a of H. W. Fowler's lucid and elegant guidebook. But even more revealing of the eternal nature of the usage war is another book, published two years ago: Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which deserves to be looked at in some detail.
Pinker picks up where Nunberg left off -- indeed, he picks up well before Nunberg left off, duplicating many of the latter's arguments and analogies, and making the same errors in defending the descriptivist position. If I treat the two men here as interchangeable, almost as a two-headed monster, it's partly because they are indeed as one in their outlook on the relevant issues, and partly because my quarrel is really with neither man but rather with the philosophical position they share -- not only with each other but with virtually all academic students of linguistics.