The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

My small collection of writing guides was recently extended by an unplanned addition of Steven Pinker‘s recent The Sense of Style – The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.  In it Pinker argues for a common sense approach to writing, and does so, at least partially, by employing linguistics and cognitive science.

Now, while I am somehow drawn to dictionaries and guidebooks  – could it be that I nurture the folly that their mere presence will make me a better writer – I am unfortunately just a bit too lax when it comes to actually using them. Sure, I consult Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors every now and then; even my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style is brought down a few times per year from its resting place on the shelf (where it normally sits around impersonating a modern tome of spells). But, I have to confess, I fail to do consult them as often as I should. So, what will I do with yet a style guide? I don’t know, but once it was in my possession decided to read it.

Now, less than half of Pinker’s book is actually a reference work on style, advising the reader (who are also a writer of course) on the course of action in certain specific situations involving choosing and combining words . The rest, some 190 pages, is (of course) also about writing and style as well, but it doesn’t take the form of simple rules. (Though it does of course describe techniques Pinker considers worth mentioning, and his opinion of them.) Instead Pinker describes linguistics; what makes a sentence, and what conveys understanding. The focus here is less on grammar and more on how to express what one wants to say using the English language in such a way that a reader can digest it effortlessly. (For instance by avoiding overly complicated sentences and constructions causing the reader to halt in her tracks; ahem.)

Pinker  argues for the classic style, that is: a writer should always strive to show the purpose to their readers and engage them in discussion. Moreover he is, in a way, taking the opportunity to attack (as it may be called in an academic setting) people he call ‘sticklers’ – those who he believes are too nit-picky about language and grammar. Those that love correcting others. His point is that it doesn’t really matter in many cases, or that the sticklers (as he calls them) don’t even have a point to start with.

I can agree with that, even if my knowledge of English grammar is much to rudimentary to care about the discussion in principle, I think it is often a sound stance on many occasions. It is better forgive. Moreover, I believe that a language is evolving, and that the push and pull from different forces might even optimize it. English is such a curious language to start with, and many constructions in it are funny. It is hard to say what is right or wrong. On the other hand, Pinkers constant pointing out of things the ‘sticklers’ does wrong becomes somewhat tedious throughout the book. Not bad, but it is like watching an argument you don’t have any stake in so it doesn’t carry any meaning. The argument seems pointless… you want to the antagonists “Well, if you know you are right, just let it go.  I don’t care about those people.”

I can only assume the other side of the argument is the same.

Anyway, the book is clearly written and is an engaging read, so Pinker at least follows his own advice on style. My one complaint is that when correct sentences and wrong sentences are printed next to each other, they are not always clearly marked; it is mostly obvious which one is right and which one is wrong, but not always.

Something I really did appreciate however is how the text is constructed to exemplify the grammatical rule, or style currently being introduced. In the early chapters I thought I was merely noticing the constructions in the sentences because the context primed me for it. However, later in the text Pinker mentions the tactic on a few occations so I believe it is intentionally. Such things makes me very happy, and I have a feeling there might be a couple of linguistic Easter eggs baked into the book. Perhaps to amuse (or is it annoy) those a bit more grammatically savvy than I. (Or should that be me?)

In any case, The Sense of Style is interesting, and I hope not all of its lessons were wasted on this poor writer.

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