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Editorial Reviews

"Deliciously erudite." (William Safire, New York Times Magazine)

Publisher's Summary

Steven Pinker, author of the landmark best sellers The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate - and one of the world's leading cognitive scientists - offers an eye-opening explanation of how human beings learn and use language in Words and Rules. First published in 2000, Words and Rules remains one of Pinker's most provocative and accessible books, illuminating the fascinating relationship between the brain, the mind, and how language makes us humans.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your My Library section along with the audio.

©1999 Steven Pinker. (P)2015 Brilliance Audio, all rights reserved.

Critic Reviews

"A riveting detective story." ( Chicago Tribune)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Amazing how much irregular verbs can teach.

Wow - I was not expecting this book to offer so much insight on the human mind.

The book answers a fairly mundane question: do regular and irregular verbs use different brain systems? He says yes. Irregular verbs, such as "go, went, gone" are memorized, like in a list. Regular verbs, such as "walk, walked, walked," are assembled using a rule—add -ed.

It's not mundane, however, because the regular-irrugular split turns out to be just an example of two systems that are present in everything we do: one works by memorization and association, and one works by abstract rules. Anytime we want to categorize anything (which occurs in essentially any debate or discussion of any kind) we need to understand which system our words are based on. The consequences for how we think about meaning could be far reaching.

You need to slog through a few chapters before this book picks up, so don't let yourself get turned away. Once he starts revealing the hidden reasons behind why we say "mice trap" but not "rats trap" and many other surprises in our everyday speech, it's pretty darn fascinating.

I really appreciate that he gets into neuroscience in the later chapters and doesn't treat linguistics as a humanities fundamentally incompatible with other sciences.

If you're a word or language nerd, you'll love this. If you're just interested in how the human mind works, you might be pleasantly surprised how much understanding human grammar can teach you.

14 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 12-17-16

Irregular verbs under the microscope

Who would have thought that you could write a whole book about irregular verbs? Well, I’m exaggerating, some of the book is also about irregular noun inflections and a lot of the book describes how we learn the rules of language that tell us when to use irregular verbs versus when to use the regular forms. And at the end there’s an expansion from the incredibly narrow and detailed subject of irregular verbs into human intelligence in general, as a way of saying how wonderful our species is to be able to do so many clever things, including mastering the use of irregular verbs.

I like Steven Pinker’s books a lot (although I just googled him and I’m not crazy about his hairstyle). I really enjoyed ‘The Language Instinct’, in which he tries to show (successfully in my opinion) that the human brain is genetically equipped with language modules. I also enjoyed ‘Blank Slate’ in which he argues that the human mind is not at all a blank state. Both of these books overlap with this one, in the sense that they all agree that the brain is genetically pre-programmed to acquire certain specific types of knowledge and skills.

However, my favourite of his books was on an entirely different subject: ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ is a fascinating analysis of the history of violence, showing, perhaps counterintuitively, that violence has tended to steadily decrease over the course of human history.

But I digress - let's get back to this book, ‘Words and Rules’: You definitely have to be a Word-Nerd to enjoy this book. I am one, and so I did. I now understand language better than I did before. It’s a bit dry and technical at times but it does provide answers around how people acquire and use language.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating insight into language

and fantastic performance. I enjoyed it and learned a lot. Very insightful and accessible analysis of how our minds acquire and use language as well as the nature of language in general. Loved it.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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A little slow sometimes, but informative!

This book was essentially a slightly different perspective of a class I took in linguistics and cognition.

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Word Nerds Rejoice

I loved this book, even in the places where some might say it bogs down with so many rules for words. I'm happy to plod through those parts, because we're talking about WORDS, man, WORDS. This is an excellent resource for anyone who reads in English.

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A Fascinating Listen

A thoroughly well-made exposition of the words and rules theory of language use and learning. Probably because I was already amenable to the theory, I did find it to be a tad over-argued in places. Also, occasionally the lists of examples (which I'm sure worked well in print form) were a bit tedious to have read en totem. These are my only criticisms. the book is generally excellent and certainly well worth the very minor foibles.

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Ugh! This is a textbook!

This is so not meant for general listening! I have a good grasp on languages and have listened to several linguistic audiobooks that I enjoyed. Imagine an English high school textbook in audiobook form and that's what you have here. This book might be good to read, but it's so not meant to be listened to!!! Could not listen to more than an hour's worth.

6 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • Amr
  • Kamp-Lintfort, North Rhine-Westphalia, DE
  • 11-20-16

Hard to follow & boring

Disclaimer: this review is subjective and may not be useful for your needs.

I lasted an hour and a half before quitting this book. I'm someone who likes English but this book was so tedious that I couldn't stick with it even though I hate abandoning a book after I've started.

The second problem is that the content is hard to follow when presented in audio form because you can't pause and contemplate a structure like you can when the page is in front of you. Pausing the audio and resuming is nowhere near as good. And so it's like trying to process an equation while trying to keep seventeen variables in your head.

To that point, the book has a lot of illustrations that make it easier to understand the structures being referred to, but this being an audiobook, all you get is the narrator telling you to see the figure in the companion PDF.

I don't know about you, but I listen to audiobooks specifically in situations when I'm not sitting down and doing nothing else and so repeatedly asking me to pause and fish out he PDF is infuriating.

3 of 8 people found this review helpful