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Words And Rules: The Ingredients Of Language (Science Masters Series) Hardcover – October 28, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Human languages are capable of expressing a literally endless number of different ideas. How do we manage it--so effortlessly that we scarcely ever stop to think about it? In Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, a look at the simple concepts that we use to devise works as complex as love sonnets and tax laws, renowned neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker shows us how. The latest linguistic research suggests that each of us stores a limited (though large) number of words and word-parts in memory and manipulates them with a much smaller number of rules to produce every writing and utterance, and Pinker explains every step of the way with engaging good humor.

Pinker's enthusiasm for the subject infects the reader, particularly as he emphasizes the relation between how we communicate and how we think. What does it mean that a small child who has never heard the word wug can tell a researcher that when one wug meets another, there are two wugs? Some rule must be telling the child that English plurals end in -s, which also explains mistakes like mouses. Is our communication linked inextricably with our thinking? Pinker says yes, and it's hard to disagree. Words and Rules is an excellent introduction to and overview of current thinking about language, and will greatly reward the careful reader with new ways of thinking about how we think, talk, and write. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

MIT linguist Pinker builds on his previous successes (How the Mind Works; The Language Instinct) with another book explaining how we learn and deploy word, phrase and utterance. Some linguists (notably Noam Chomsky) have argued that everything in speech comes from hidden, hard-wired rules. Others (notably some computer scientists) claim that we learn language by association, picking up raw data first. Pinker argues that our brains exhibit both kinds of thought, and that we can see them both in English verbs: rule application ("combination") governs regular verbs, memory ("lookup") handles irregulars. The interplay of the two characterizes all language, perhaps all thought. Each of Pinker's 10 chapters takes up a different field of research, but all 10 concern regular and irregular forms of words. Pinker shows what scientists learn from children's speech errors (My brother got sick and pukeded); from survey questions (What do you call more than one wug?); from similar rules in varying languages (English, German and Arapesh); from theoretical models and their failings and from brain disorders like jargon anomia (whose victims use complex sentences, but say things like "nose cone" when they mean "phone call"). Sometimes Pinker explains linguists' current consensus; at other times, he makes a case for his own theoretical school. His previous books have been accused of excessive ambition; here he largely sticks to his own fields. The result, with its crisp prose and neat analogies, makes required reading for anyone interested in cognition and language. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Science Masters Series
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (October 28, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465072690
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465072699
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #137,320 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

108 of 118 people found the following review helpful By Shawn Weil on February 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
If The Language Instinct described Pinker's view of the development of language and How the Mind Works described his views about cognition in general, this latest work details his ideas about the cognitive organization of language. And like his other books, Pinker tries to persuade the reader to agree with his assessment of thingsusing humorous examples, occasionally odd logic, hyperbole, and in this case a 290 page extended example.
Pinker believes that the brain's representation of language is rule based - morphology (such as adding -s to a noun to make it plural or -ed to a verb to make it past tense) occurs because a system in the brain applies a rule during language production. During the past twenty years or so, many cognitive scientists have begun to think that perhaps this type of morphology is not rule based at all, but instead occurs because of the specific pattern of connections in the brain. The goal of this book is to convince the reader that connectionism is wrong, and a rule based system is correct. To do this, he talks about irregular verbs; their etymology bastardization by children, idiosyncrasies, and production by non-typical populations. I never thought that irregular verbs and oddly plauralized nouns could be interesting. I was right. This topic is so much more esoteric than his other books, that even his entertaining examples could not overcome either my skepticism or my boredom. After a while you just want to hear something different. Pinker is not reporting a phenomena, and evenhandedly evaluating various explanatory theories; he is presenting one view to be dismantled, and another to be exalted as correct.
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69 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Shirley Brownfield on February 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Whoever would think that an entire book could be written on the subject of verbs: regular and irregular. But Pinker does a dynamic job of making language sing. He recognizes the liquidity of language, its morphing and morphosis of rules, and its complete fascination. This is the third Pinker book I have read - and can't wait for the next one. I jumped into this one expecting repetition from his other books, but he continues to surprise us with completely new slants about language, completely new examples. Only his expertise and broad sense of humor remain familiar. I have to read slowly so I can absorb all the nuances suggested. Still, I hate to lay the book down. Major entertainment and fascinating information.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Erik Fleischer on March 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In Words and Rules, Pinker manages to condense and tie together an unbelievable amount of research. Reading this book carefully (i.e. really absorbing the densely packed information) and looking up some of its references is probably equivalent to a good undergraduate degree in linguistics.

Pinker has a knack for teasing apart all the different threads that make up a hugely complex subject, exploring each one with arguments and data from different academic currents, and then tying them up again so the reader can form a much better picture of the whole. And that's exactly what he does in this flawlessly well-written book.

The only problem with Words and Rules is its packaging: it's marketed as a popular science book for the general public, but unlike The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, it can probably only be properly appreciated by either serious "language hobbyists" or linguists (I am both).

If you don't have a fairly good background, or at least a serious interest, in linguistics, you'll probably find this book too dense (at any rate, it's definitely not "light reading"). If you're a linguist (pure or applied), here's another real gem from Steven Pinker.
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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Joerg Colberg on August 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
If you read Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" already you will probably enjoy reading this book. I think this book is somewhat harder to read, though, because of its topic. This book mainly deals with regular and irregular verbs. Yikes! Irregular verbs are a nightmare for students - especially if they are learning a foreign language. Believe me, my native language is German and I really hated having to learn all those weird combinations like "go - went - gone". Where does that come from? I have to admit that German is not much better - in fact, Pinker deals with the German language in a full chapter.
I always wondered why the verbs we most frequently use are so ridiculously irregular. Why not "go - goed - goed"? Wouldn't that be easier? Pinker goes (why "goes"?) through many irregular verbs and explains in full detail where the funky endings come from - it turns out that most of the endings come from old or ancient sources. This part is a little bit dull to read if you're not really thrilled by all the subtleties but it is still very nice to see why the most commonly used verbs are irregular.
PS: I fear having read though all the wrong examples Pinker gives scrod up my knowledge of irregular verbs somewhat. I will ask my friends to blame it on him. ;-)
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56 of 66 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 25, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I rank this book ahead of How the Mind Works and behind the Language Instinct, but all three were quite informative and enjoyable. Pinker has returned to his core compentency- linguistics. May be a little too narrow for those looking for another philosophy of mind tome.
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