The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century Steven Pinker (2014, Viking)
Steven Pinker is admirably qualified to write a style guide for the twenty-first century. He’s a leading thinker about linguistics and cognitive science; he chairs the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary; and he’s a wonderful writer. In The Sense of Style, he brings his expertise to bear on reading, writing, and the history of style guides. In particular, Pinker jousts with The Elements of Style, which dominated the field in the twentieth century. “Writers can profit by reading more than one style guide, and much of Strunk and White (as it is commonly called) is as timeless as it is charming. But much of it is not.”
English changes all the time, of course; rules go out of date because the common usage changes. There are quite a few, as well, that never should have been rules in the first place, like the prohibition on split infinitives. “The very terms ‘split infinitive’ and ‘split verb’ are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, ‘to love.’” Pinker doesn’t replace the prohibition with a new rule, but with a set of observations that enable the writer to choose for herself. Perhaps the modifier is the main thing she wants to say, in which case she’ll consider moving it to the end of the sentence, doing justice to its importance. Maybe it sounds just fine coming earlier in the sentence, so she can painlessly avoid a run-in with the Gotcha! Gang; and sometimes, especially with negation, it fits most comfortably right up against the verb.
The chapter on rules, worthy and unworthy, is great fun, but what stands out about this book is Pinker’s psychological acuity. He’s always paying attention to how writing works for the reader. In the chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” he explores the difficulty of remembering that the reader can’t see what you see and doesn’t know what you know. Specialized vocabularies in every scientific and academic field help experts communicate among themselves, at the cost of leaving the rest of the world out of their discussions. “The curse of knowledge is insidious, because it conceals not only the contents of our thoughts from us but their very form. When we know something well, we don’t realize how abstractly we think about it.”
Pinker also brings his expertise in Linguistics to bear. The study of grammar has come a long way since the days of “A Noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.” The modern theory separates grammatical categories (like ‘noun’), from grammatical functions (like ‘subject’), and both from syntactic categories (like ‘physical object’). With just a little of this background in mind, we can follow Pinker as he diagrams sentences to show us how the parts fit together. While we will not often actually draw such diagrams in real life, we can develop a mental picture of the tree that will be a great help in combing out our snarled sentences.
Pinker’s own writing is both sturdy and beautiful, and frequently witty as well. He’s a professional descriptivist, an astute observer of how people actually talk and write, who is has written a distinctly prescriptivist guide. Of course, you are free to disagree with some of his opinions about usage – that’s part of the fun – but he explains his reasons, which helps you think more clearly about your own. His attitude is fundamentally courteous: “We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”
I started reviewing books nearly twenty years ago for Voices, the occasional newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The newsletter has evolved to a different form, but I still try to write something every month. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!