Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language
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Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  882 ratings  ·  57 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.
Unknown Binding, 397 pages
Published October 5th 2000 by Not Avail (first published 1999)
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Lara Messersmith-Glavin
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,

and

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...more
Trevor
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...more
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:...more
Sara
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
Mark Terry
I immensely enjoyed a lecture by Dr. Pinker a couple of years ago. He uses irregular verbs to explain the intersection of language development and cognition. If that doesn't strike you as interesting, then I recommend that you run away. Now. For those of you that are left, it was actually quite enjoyable. He explains mysteries of language such as children that say "growed" but won't tolerate an adult saying the same thing. The book has a minimum of linguistics jargon, and prior experience is not...more
Elliot
Words and Rules is a 300 page book dedicated almost entirely to the past tense in English. My copy, at least, has one of the most hideously unattractive covers I've ever seen. There is simply no reason that anyone would ever read this book. I am at a complete loss as to how to make the case for anyone to check it out, to be honest. The best I can say is that, if you're interested in how regular and irregular words shed light on the cognitive machinery behind language, this is an extraordinarily...more
Charly
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.
Dave
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
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. ^_^
Drew
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,...more
Ilya
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
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...more
Blair Dowden
This book uses the seemingly simple concept of irregular verbs to explore how the mind works. I learned there is a lot more rules behind the English language than I realized, but unless one has a thorough knowledge of the history of languages back to proto-Indo-European these rules will not be of much practical help for getting my irregular verbs right. Pinker's thesis is that grammar rules are hard wired in our brains, and that there are multiple parts of the brain that generate language. Rule...more
Jafar
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
Dan
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
Daniel
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
Dave Peticolas

Pinker explores how the distinction between regular and irregular verbs illuminates how human beings think and process language. An excellent read with lots of interesting historical digressions.

Alex
My 6 month old daughter's growing vocabulary of grunts and syllables is the most fascinating thing in the world to me these days. This came from a remainder pile to my bookshelf a few year ago, and The Blank Slate is one of my favorites, so I've got high hopes.
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Interesting, but I didn't love it as much as [nook: The Blank Slate]. It really took off for me when it got into the relationships between English and other languages, and especially in the last chapter or two where it got into the bio...more
Paul
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
Owen
Another good book by Pinker. This one seeks to deflate yuksters who say things like "why do we pronounce cough "coff"? Shouldn't it be "coo"?" Pinker quite brilliantly and deliberately demonstrates how we came to pronounce things, and also explains the apparent illogic of the expression "flied out" (as opposed to flew out) in baseball, and other similar examples. Like all of his books, it borders on the pedantic but uses humourous examples, and it took me a long time to get through (threw?) it....more
Jennifer Kunz
I have always known I would enjoy his books, as have heard him talk on them in documentaries - but was nice to finally read one and prove that they ARE good. This one is on a highly interesting theory of language and all the evidence for it. It was very readable, with precise, short chapters - which allows each idea its own space instead of being all piled into large chapters. Loved it. Only downside is it is over a decade old, so now I want an update :)
Harry Lane
I found this book somewhat interesting, but also somewhat heavy going. Pinker's thesis, as I discern it, is that we store both individual words and rules for conjugating in our minds, and uses research regarding irregular verbs to support this thesis. Some of the most interesting portions of the book had to do with the way children acquire language; other parts of the book were detailed descriptions of academic studies that I found to be quite dry.
Julie Christiano
Always enlightening to see how much research has been done and is being done on anything, much less on something I would have bet my house that was not being studied, in this case regular and irregular nouns and verbs!!!!!!!!! Very informative. It was my second Steven Pinker "Summer course in a book," but it was not up to the import of last year's "Better Angels of our Nature." Still very glad that I read, I mean, took the course!
Monica
Covers much of the same ground as The Language Instinct, but from the narrower perspective of the contrast between regular and irregular verbs. The entire book is built around upholding the theory of words and rules; the repetitiveness is unnecessary and gets tiresome at times, but in general the book is informative and should be enjoyable if you liked Pinker's earlier work.
Bill
Brilliant, witty, challenging, and bright. Pinker illuminates the workings of the mind - and the brain - as he takes a droll romp through the history of our language and the language of our history. (Who would have thought that the Norman conquest would have created our preference for regular verbs?) Sure to whet your appetite for other books by Pinker.
Alastair
This book has taken me months to read, having to stop every few paragraphs to do some thinking (and frankly look up some of the terminology with which I am unfamiliar). Well worth the effort, though, and clarifies linguistic processes in a (generally) accessible and interesting way - oh, and lots of fun cartoons to lighten the intellectual load a little.
TK Keanini
If you have ready any Pinker, you will want to have this one too. I may not agree with everything Pinker has to say but his books are immaculate.

If nothing else, you will like the patterns in this book. Language is just so powerful, I have always been interested in it. It is something that has to account for itself.
Tj Wilson
Easy at times; rough at times. Definitely a better read than a lot of other popular science books but still difficult as far as understanding the minuteness of grammatical detail involved. In the end, Pinker provides a wonderful and convincing new perspective on human thought and language. A novel read.
Kim
This is a great look into how language works and how the brain works. It addresses pesky questions about language and grammar by showing you how your brain works on language: why do irregular verbs tend to be the ones you use the most, like "to be"? It all has to do with brain timing.
Carmen Rodríguez
Loved this consilient masterpiece. Great as an introduction to inquiry on how the mind works and on how we function. Besides Pinker's theory of language... Here is the post on my blog regarding this reading: http://carmenrodrigueza.wordpress.com...
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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
More about Steven Pinker...
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language How the Mind Works The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

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