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on 1 December 2000
This is probably of less interest to the general reader then the deservedly popular "Labguage Instinct" in that it concentrates attention nearly all on regular and irregular verbs. However it still includes many very fascinating ideas about language and the brain and how they both reflect the nature of reality.
Pinker's basic premise is that the brain has the two different ways of working expressed in the title of the book- words and rules. In showing why he thinks the observed data are best explained by this dichotomy he covers the history of language, how language is processed by the brain, and two opposed theories of language: Chomsky as opposed to the distributed parallel processing model - see it is a little technical!
I am glad Pinker explains Chomsky because I am sure I would never be able to read him myself, even though I studied language at university. I also enjoy the way he writes, which is often funny, and hardly ever dull; and I find his scientific method and views on language and other matters to be both dispassionate and revealing.
I am hoping he will soon publish something else equally or more interesting.
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on 5 January 2002
This book is a return to form for Steven Pinker after the somewhat disappointing 'How the Mind Works'. It could be because he's back to what he knows best- how we learn languages and the consequences of this for the psychology and philosophy of mind- but I think it's mainly because that last book broke the cardinal rule of popular science books: it had no story. This one certainly does, the story of how scientist have investigated the how and why of regular and irregular verbs. Why do both forms exist? Why do children, language learners and certain brain damaged people have problems learning one or the other form? What does this tell us about how the brain is organised more generally? Steven Pinker gives a fascinating account of scientists' research into these and other questions involved with 'Words and Rules'.
I'd still recommend 'The Language Instinct' more as a first read on the subject, but if you liked that you'll like this too, and I would rate 'The Language Instinct' as the best popular science book since 'Chaos' by James Gleick.
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on 25 January 2007
This is a truly brilliant book, in terms of both content and form, which should be in every library. Steven Pinker has the marvellous idea of presenting language and linguistics in the round by concentrating on all the different aspects of regular and irregular verbs. So you get both breadth and depth at the same time, oh so rare in pop science books. Essential for anyone who wants to understand -- and really understand -- language a little more.
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Psychologist, linguist, and well-known author Steven Pinker illustrates the processes of human language through an extended discussion of regular and irregular verbs. He skillfully uses our grade-school struggles with the rules and exceptions of English vocabulary to explore the larger realm of human language competence. "Like fruit flies, regular and irregular verbs are small and easy to breed, and they contain, in easily visible form, the machinery that powers larger phenomena in all their glorious complexity."

Pinker's book explores in great detail the two different systems of the brain that produce language. One is regular and rule-like and produces patterns that range from the regular forms of some verbs to the grammatical and organizational regularities of larger chunks of language. The other is idiosyncratic and irregular and stores pieces of our linguistic competence that frustrate linguists and second-graders alike. Our working language is shaped by the interplay between these systems. They both leave their traces in the historical changes in language, similarities between different languages, the creative mistakes children and adults make while learning language, and in the way we invent and reinvent new words.

This book is recommended to anyone who wants to understand how our mind enables us to use language. Don't worry about being trapped into a narrow dissection of verbs--the book simply uses them as an increasingly-familiar theme to explore larger language issues. And don't shrink from an imagined tangle of technical terminology. Pinker's use of language is as deft as his grasp of it. His book is an enjoyable, as well as an informative read.
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on 18 November 2012
Pinker is a highly respected linguistic scientist, and amongst that select band he is a supreme communicator, one with a common touch which makes his books as approachable as any to the non-specialist, even lay reader. As in his other magnificent works, 'Words and Rules' goes har beyond linguistics, and deals with weighty items such as the mechanisms of thought. It goes into its subject of word construction to a great depth, and I admit that I was floundering as I tried to grasp the wealth of detail that makes it so stimulating. However, I found it stimulating and a pleasure to read, even if my reading had to be accomplished slowly. I got the sense that Pinker was dealing fairly with competing theories and intellectual advances, and I feel the book will introduce many people to the joys of this branch of science, however much concentration is requires to assimilate it.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 17 August 2011
Stephen Pinker is one of the clearest and interesting modern writers on language; he is also an excellent speaker who, because of his great depth of knowledge of his own subject and his obvious enthusiasm for it, is able to communicate that to his listeners. As a great user of language himself, he is an excellent advocate for its clearer use.
He explains the complexities of Chomsky's linguistic ideas with its deep structures and transformational grammar in ways which make them more understandable to the "everyday" reader before explaining more modern approaches based in Chomsky's ideas.
In this more scholarly and somewhat drier text (after the "Language Instinct"), he deals with words and rules, the content and method, in ways which make this a fascinating insight into how humans developed and use language.
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on 4 August 2004
I was very impressed by the Language Instinct and the Blank Slate, but this book was not a joy to read.
Essentially, the material (how humans acquire facility in a language with its perverse mix of rules and exceptions) is only sufficient for an extended essay. Pinker stretches it to book length with large amounts of anecdotally presented "experimental data" on how people make judgments on rules and exceptions, especially in relation to noun plurals and verb past forms in English and German. These anecdotes are far too slow and repetitive to be entertaining, and in general the material could have been considerably condensed to great benefit.
Ultimately the book is unconvincing, because it is far from clear that conclusions based on the behaviour of English and German speakers would generalise to speakers of highly inflected languages, or speakers brought up on a non-inflected languages. Furthermore, the English of the book is US English, and some of the author's conclusions on specific points are contradicted by usage in other major dialects of English.
The writer foolishly tries to take the high ground on usage of Latin and Ancient Greek loan words, and, through imperfect knowledge of those languages, commits several solecisms (or at least would be considered solecisms on this side of the pond).
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on 30 August 2001
An intelligent marriage between detail and simplicity of style. Pinker takes us on a tour of language and attempts to explain how it works through the existence of regular and irregular verbs. A convincing argument elegantly delivered.
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on 13 October 2013
I bought this book as it was required reading for a Cognitive Science class I was taking. I'm a Linguistics student, and I found it to be an unsatisfactory account of how language works in the brain. There are much better works out there.
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on 16 January 2015
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