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Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

3.89  ·  Rating Details ·  1,310 Ratings  ·  81 Reviews
In 'Words and Rules', Steven Pinker explains the mysteries of language by examining a single construction from a dozen viewpoints, proposing that the essence of language is a mental dictionary of memorized words, and a mental grammar of creative rules.
Paperback, 397 pages
Published October 1st 2000 by Not Avail (first published 1999)
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Lara Messersmith-Glavin
May 06, 2008 Lara Messersmith-Glavin rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics, mind
Steven Pinker's work is generally very readable, and so he has become something of a champion popularizer of linguistics and all the fun, quirky, nifty tidbits of knowledge that come with the field. Unfortunately, he also does two things that annoy the hell out of me:

1) He writes from a controversial position as if it were the only view,


2) He had one good idea a few decades back, and has proceeded to spin it out into a small cottage industry involving a number of volumes and essays; in realit
Jan 04, 2008 Trevor rated it it was amazing
Shelves: psychology, language
I think I know how to tell if a book by Pinker is going to be a great read or an effort to get through - how thick it is. I've read most of his stuff, but this is my favourite - closely followed by The Language Instinct (which is also a great read). How the Mind Works is quite a difficult, though probably worth it in the end, and The Blank Slate - well, I barely remember any of it now.

This is magnificent, particularly on how children learn language and how they make predictable mistakes in whate
Troy Blackford
Feb 09, 2016 Troy Blackford rated it it was amazing
A masterful exploration of language and cognition from the world expert on both, this book explores the processes in the brain that enable us to describe the world around us. Additionally, it sheds light on the history of irregular verb forms. It might be hard to see how an in-depth study of regular and irregular verbs could illuminate so much about how the mind and language work, but after you've read this, you will be puzzled no longer. One of the best language books I've encountered.
Jan 23, 2016 Gendou rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, science
This book covers two unassuming grammatical forms, the past and plural tenses. By examining almost exclusively these two parts of grammar, Pinker surveys the history, successes, and failures of two schools of thought with regard to how we (humans) learn and use language.

The connectionist model, which uses artificial neural networks to learn conjugation by studying patterns in an input set of known words and use this to predict the conjugation of new words. Pinker says this fails because the neur
Katya Epstein
This man is a great writer. He explains familiar rules in a way that is not only more interesting and comprehensible than the standard expositions, but also gives you a completely new understanding of what the rule is about.
That said, the book is very repetitive.The first three chapters are a very entertaining presentation of the relevant phenomena and his argument about how the mind creates speech. In the following six chapters he presents all of the evidence he can find to support his theory:
Baal Of
Dec 25, 2016 Baal Of rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, non-fiction
This is a deep dive into an area I don't know very well, so my opinions are pretty irrelevant. I found this to be a fascinating read, but I can understand why most people would find it somewhat boring. Pinker spends a lot of time discussing the minutia of how people form various tenses of verbs, for example, and not just in English but other languages as well. He is clearly arguing from a particular viewpoint, and I don't know enough to judge whether his position would be close to the current sc ...more
Oct 30, 2009 Sara rated it it was amazing
Shelves: linguistics
This is my first Steven Pinker book. It's written well in that it makes material that could be dry and incomprehensible instead both engaging and able to be understood by someone who is not yet as savvy as she'd like to be about some aspects of linguistics and how language functions in the brain. The book also is organized in a way that its subject matter builds understandably on itself throughout and then extends its fundamental premises about regular and irregular verbs to get at the way the b ...more
Mar 03, 2011 Charly is currently reading it
The edition I am currently reading has a hideous '90s purple and orange cover--so that's a downside.

I've found this to be the most philosophical of the linguistics books I've been hoarding lately . . . a good thing so far. Will update when I have the stamina to finish. Since it's not a novel, I've been reading chapters of this, going back and forth to later works . . . a quite enjoyable way to take it all in. The part on causation has blown my mind thus far. First chapter sort of boring.
Apr 05, 2011 Dave rated it liked it
This guy knows way too much about language. Still, he did a good job of compacting complex linguistic ideas into understandable vignettes. His witticisms and use of comic strips helped lighten things up as well. I would definitely recommend Words and Rules for anyone looking for a comprehensive and comprehensible crash course in linguistics.
Prachi Pande
Jun 14, 2011 Prachi Pande rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Guy's got me ready to jump into a career in linguistics. In an age when all you have to do to spit out a bestseller is tack 'Quantum' onto the front of the title, this is real, hardcore, purely magnificent science writing.

Neural networks. Neurobiology. Combinatorial languages. Irresistible. ^_^
Feb 18, 2017 Shari rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book that will teach you more than you will ever need to know about verbs and their tenses. The glossary at the back of the book is a very big help.

Pinker goes into depth discussing the way the brain works determining what tenses and endings to use before it triggers actually speaking the words. All this is in regard to how children learn language. This is extremely interesting but it is also complicated. He gives chapter and verse on several attempts to simplify language over the ages
Shawna Alpdemir
Nov 14, 2016 Shawna Alpdemir rated it liked it
I'd give this book somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. Let me preface my review by stating I think this is not one to be "read" as an audiobook - I think it would be more beneficial to actually read this book and physically see the words as Pinker goes through the various roots, stems, and theories. The audiobook does apparently come with a PDF, but like most listeners, I sat through the 14 hour audiobook during my commutes back and forth to work, so I stiff-upper-lipped my way through. It is quite ...more
Cordellya Smith
Dec 30, 2016 Cordellya Smith rated it it was amazing
For anyone with an interest in language and how it has evolved, this book is a must read.
Graham Mulligan
Words and Rules; The Ingredients of Language; Stephen Pinker, Basic Books 1999

Reviewed by Graham Mulligan

The subject of this book is regular and irregular verbs. Everyone leans their native language in roughly the same way; lots of words and concepts assembled together following patterns and rules. People don’t just “blurt out words but rather combine them into phrases and sentences. So, what’s the issue with the verbs? Most of them (the regulars) behave similarly, for example add ‘ed’ to make t
Dec 28, 2016 Terry rated it really liked it
Oh, Stephen Pinker. He's like a factory that produces interesting books on topics that I find curious. In "Words and Rules" Pinker breaks down speech and language processing to almost atomic pieces and explains how each part seems to be processed by the mind as it pertains to the rules of speech. The byproduct of the book is that I'm now more than ever a descriptivist and that I have far too much fun mispluralizing words.

I consumed the audio version and have gone back to get the dead tree versio
Jun 05, 2016 Rdt rated it really liked it
Pinker's "The Language Instinct" is the best linguistics book that I have ever read. In "The Language Instinct" Pinker explains Chomsky's theories and the scholarship that has come out of them in a way that is clear but does not feel excessively dumbed down for the popular audience. Then I read one of his other books "How The Mind Works" which had a number of unsupported assertions and arguments that I did't quite buy and which I disliked almost as much as I liked "The Language Instinct," so I w ...more
Dec 21, 2016 Jim rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, math-sci
This is probably the heaviest book on linguistic theory I've ever read. In the past, I've enjoyed books that covered the history of the English language - usually in a generally informative and lighthearted way. This book would be good as a "Linguistics 101" university course. Definitely not light reading, but I did find it very interesting.

The author covers everything from patterns of how all children seem to acquire language to the labyrinth of rules dictating "regular" and "irregular" verb an
Nov 26, 2008 Drew rated it did not like it
Shelves: science
Ego, thy name is Steven Pinker. That about sums up my thoughts on this book. I found his narrative to be dismissive of all other opinions but his own. He was condescending in his argument and his thesis could be summed up as "Once you agree with me, you will be correct."

On more specific issues, I think he saw languages as developing internally, i.e. more monolithic, and not being influenced as much by exterior forces. Later on in the book, he does discuss the impact of immigration and conquest,
Dec 15, 2016 Jennie marked it as abandoned  ·  review of another edition
I didn't hate this book or anything - Pinker is normally an engaging writer. It's just that I found it a little too abstract and sciencey-wiencey, and all of the morphology and charts gave me uncomfortable flashbacks to my days as an Applied Linguistics major taking a morphology class and realizing this was not, in fact, the major for me. Those days did help me to define that my interest in linguistics is more in the evolution of words (how did we get from Beowulf to Harry Potter?) rather than t ...more
Dec 28, 2010 Ilya rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
An introduction to Chomskyan linguistics through a single feature of English: regular and irregular verbs and nouns (all other languages are covered in a single chapter). To Pinker, they are a window on the language and mind in general, of healthy children (who regularize irregular verbs but then stop) and adults as well as of sufferers from Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and Huntington's chorea (each of these diseases affects the usage of regular and irregular English verbs in its own ...more
Jun 10, 2014 Aaron rated it liked it
Shelves: slp
A little abstruse and difficult to read at times, in stark contrast to other books i've read by Pinker. Words and Rules provides an excellent overview of some key issues in psycholinguistics by analysis of two ubiquitous components of language; words and rules; memory lookup and symbol manipulation. The book concerns itself with only regular and irregular verbs and the difference psychological systems that belie them. I found it be very comprehensive and appropriately detailed and despite its sc ...more
Christine Lynch
Nov 16, 2016 Christine Lynch rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Joseph Sverker
Interesting and well argued. I must say that Pinker convinces me that language is a combination between words and rules, between the need to memorize certain aspects of language and the use of rules in order to be able to use language. That the capacity to learn language, and the breaking of the code of these rules is some innate 'instinct' sounds rather likely as well. I am not as sure about some other of the implications that he mentions, like his strong adherence to the computational theory o ...more
Jun 04, 2008 Dan rated it it was ok
If you're into linguistics, this will be a 4 or 5 star book for you. Apparently, the subject matter doesn't interest me much. The author makes a fairly complicated subject very readable structure wise. I credit him for that. There were a few moments that I found very intriguing, but for the most part, I felt like I was constantly waiting for the punchline or conclusion that would make the read worth it. It never really delivered on that. It gave me some interesting things to think about, and to ...more
Oct 25, 2016 Daniel rated it really liked it
For a book picked up on a complete whim, this book was surprisingly enjoyable. Or perhaps it would be better to say un-surprisingly enjoyable, as I'm fairly familiar with Steven Pinker's writing and the way he has with words. Nevertheless, a sizeable book on quite a small core topic - irregular verbs - manages to convey quite a number of insightful truths and revelations.

Of course, as a non-fiction book, as well as a linguistic book, there are some dry bits near the middle, and it is a bit deman
Aug 04, 2008 Jafar rated it liked it
Steven Pinker never fails to shock-and-awe me, but I didn’t find this book as enjoyable as his Stuff of Thought. The rating of this book would be off-the-chart if I judged it by Pinker’s knowledge of the subject matter, but as a book for a lay reader – it could try your patience. The main subject of the book is the English irregular verbs. Yes, irregular verbs. Pinker uses irregular verbs as an example to build a theory of language and mind in general. I could never have guessed that those pesky ...more
Brenda Mengeling
Nov 19, 2015 Brenda Mengeling rated it it was amazing
I love linguistics, and I'm a biochemist. So, a book on how we learn to use a language was fascinating to me. Although Words and Rules was written for the lay person, it is not a light read, but it is engagingly and entertainingly written. Pinker uses comics, cartoons and other humorous examples from the common culture to illustrate his points. The gist of this book is to use the examples of irregular and regular verbs to demonstrate that the mind uses both a memorized dictionary of words (e.g. ...more
Apr 28, 2012 Daniel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There is little doubt Pinker is a genius of sorts. Many topics covered in this book are fairly dense (and as a linguistics major in college, there have been whole courses I've taken that feel like they were almost completely summarized in one chapter), but Pinker does a good job of boiling it down to the foundation and building it up to a greater understanding through humorous analogies that everyone can understand. Of course, there are chapters I personally was not that fond of, particularly to ...more
Kelly Wagner
Aug 11, 2016 Kelly Wagner rated it it was amazing
You've got to be a bit of a language geek to enjoy this one, but if you are, then you will. Especially interesting is that he doesn't focus only on English; he draws in several language studies from Germany.

Of course, there is a bit of an agenda to try and convince you that his theory is the best available and all those other people are wrong; that the neural-networks school of thought doesn't work nearly as well as his theory, that many child psychologists are wrong about how children learn la
Apr 26, 2010 Paul rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Steven Pinker introduces his words and rules theory after providing just enough brush up information to prepare you for it. He then follows up with an onslaught of evidence from a variety of angles to support the theory. To finish up, he marries that theory up with a higher level relationship to the way we think about the world and what we find in it, providing just a little bit of the blow your mind effect. This book makes strong progress in the huge task of figuring out more specifically what ...more
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Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of seven b ...more
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