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Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

(The Science Masters Series)

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  1,679 ratings  ·  109 reviews
How does language work? How do we learn to speak? Why do languages change? Why do they have so many quirks? What does language reveal about the mind?

Steven Pinker explores the mysteries of language in this original and hugely entertaining book. Pinker uses a deceptively simple phenomenon—regular and irregular verbs—to illuminate an astonishing array of topics: the history
Paperback, 370 pages
Published March 8th 2011 by Harper Perennial (first published October 28th 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,


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

[ante reading]

The book has some intriguing chapter titles, especially chapter 8 The Horrors of the German Language. Picking up the gauntlet, Dear Sir, Mr Pinker :)

[post reading]

From the preface:
This book tries to illuminate the nature of language and mind by choosing a single phenomenon and examining it from every angle imaginable. That phenomenon is regular and irregular verbs, the bane of every language student.
That’s no mean goal the author has set here. At least he didn’t write “w
Jan 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language, psychology
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
May 30, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
“Cats and dogs.” Say the phrase, and note that the -s in cats is pronounced s, while the -s in dogs in pronounced z. Welcome to the strange and sometimes wacky world of linguistics, where things are regular until they’re not; where some irregular words were regular once upon a time but we have forgotten the rules that made them regular; where regular English verbs have four endings but are used seventeen different ways. For example, in open/opens/opened/opening the -ed suffix is used for past te ...more
Jul 26, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
If you’ve read The Language Instinct, you don’t really need to read this book. It’s very much the same theory, with perhaps some different examples, maybe a slightly different slant. Reading it, there was nothing new to me, and I think that it isn’t new because it was all covered in The Language Instinct (though it may be some other books have filled in some gaps in my knowledge before this, in the interim).

Pinker’s work is reasonably easy to read and well-illustrated with examples; he’s very co
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:
Troy Blackford
Feb 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Meg Briers
This book was challenging, I couldn't even listen to music with lyrics (my usual) when reading it. I read it during breaks from my intensive language course that I'm on and it really helped me think about English and questions that I have for the language I'm learning, just a bit on the heavy side for me. Must read more linguistic books soon.
Jan 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Yikes - I went back and forth between two stars and three stars for this but in the end the star ratings said it all. Two stars - it was OK. three stars - I liked it. It was OK and I didn't really like it. This looked like a slam dunk. I loved the Blank Slate, liked Pinker's writing style in that and I eat language books for breakfast but alas this one was not a marriage made anywhere heavenly. I just wanted it to END. Repetition, repeating yourself, which is like saying the same thing over and ...more
Marshall Wayne Lee
Steven Pinker's _Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language_ receives four stars from me based simply on his ability to take a rather dry topic and write about it interesting enough to keep my attention.

I'm unsure why I both this book. I teach language but I'm not much of a linguist. Regardless, I bought it as an audio to help me read it as it tends to be rather dry. I found the reader very good which kept me interested in the text. Pinker's writing is excellent, and he writes so that anyone c
Baal Of
Dec 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Ugh, this is SO BORING. I can't listen to anymore 500 item example lists of verb forms that follow such and such rule, not to be confused with the 500 items on the example list of verb forms that follow that OTHER rule.

Since a whole lot of this book (at least the parts I've stayed conscious through) seem to indicate that the rules are intuitive and learned as we go, I'm not quite sure why they need to be spelled out in such infinitely particular detail.

I like etymology and stuff... I picked th
Mar 03, 2011 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 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. ^_^
Since many reviewers describe Pinker's books as rather readable, I was pretty surprised by the fact I struggled quite a bit with this book. Although the topics of the individual chapters are definitely interesting (my favourite being The Horrors of the German language), Pinker's not an expert at keeping the reader's attention - at least that's the notion I got; mainly because of his borderline obsessive tendency to provide countless, absolutely exhaustive lists of examples, so it almost arouses ...more
Words and Rules is a real page turner. Who knew that irregular verbs could be so fascinating? But, like many Steven Pinker books, Words and Rules drags on a bit. Pinker wants to explain every facet from every angle until all the sing-sang-sungs start to blend into one big blob and I wished for the book to end.

My favourite bit of the book had me silently mouth "sing...sang...sung" to focus my attention on the 5 attributes of a vowel sound and how my mouth's shape changes to make each one. Did you
Kevin Chen
Sep 15, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had a lot of fun reading this. The main point is that the language faculty involves both rules (regular verbs) and a lexicon that is mostly arbitrary but still exhibits patterns (irregular verbs). The rules part overlaps a lot with Pinker's other books, esp. Language Instinct. The pattern matching part was really interesting though, particularly his arguments around what things are explained well by a pattern matching model, and what things are not.

It's unfortunate that these general-audience
Aug 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Steven Pinker is a man with a lively mind who clearly loves language - especially English - and champions the common man's speech against purists and language mavens everywhere.

I had a harder time tracking with this book than with the other two I've read (The Language Instinct and The Sense of Style), but that's mostly due to my own dullness of mind. Even if I can't reproduce his main arguments, I still enjoyed the author's cheerful tour through wug-tests, bahuvrihi compounds, pluralia tantum,
This is a book primarily about the processes by which our mind manages the use of both regular and irregular forms of the past tenses of verbs, and manages the formation of plurals of nouns. Eight (of ten) chapters cover these processes in engaging detail. Steven Pinker fills the book with interesting insights which generally prevents the subject matter from becoming overly dry to someone without a technical understanding of the study of language.
An interesting and extremely detailed exploration of Pinker's "words and rules" theory of language. As a layperson, it was a few chapters too long for me. I enjoyed it, though, and would recommend it to anyone who has a more than passing interest in linguistics and language structure.
May 07, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Life's too short. Just remind me, how many angels can dance on the point of a pin? Why does the fascinating subject of language have to turn into an intellectual battleground....I love words. Perhaps it's rules I don't like.
Sep 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The phonology chapters were a slog (largely due to content) and I’m not sure the neuroscience results are still entirely true, as methods continue to be updated and re-examined. But once you get past the phonology, which will take a while, the rest of the book is quite decent.
Aug 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, audio
I'd recommend this audio book to anyone who wants to hear about verbs for 14 hours.
Aug 30, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
A good cerebral masturbation.
Chris Friesen
Readable and interesting, which is pretty good for a book about language, grammer, and syntax. I'd give it a 3.5 if I could.
Susan Katz
Oct 05, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, abandoned
Tedious, boring, with a few good nuggets. Read about 100 pages before I gave up. Just too boring.
Interesting, but very dry.
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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 explorations of human nature and its relevance to language, history, morality, politics, and everyday life. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Repu ...more

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