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Review: The Sense of Style

Most writing sucks. Academic writing is dull and turgid, business and political writing is incoherent and stuffed with mostly meaningless jargon, and much journalism is borderline illiterate. The internet, for all that it has done to advance humanity’s knowledge, has also perpetrated the heinous crime of making everyone a writer – and just like most people can’t draw a portrait, assemble an engine, sing an opera or jump a salchow, most people can’t write.

In the face of all this bad writing, it’s very easy for people of a certain temperament to get mad. It’s very easy to picket outside movie theatres, to go grocery shopping armed with tipex for use on errant apostrophes, to send snarky email replies and make snide comments, to believe one is fighting a heroic battle against the very degeneration of the English language. To hear Orwell tell it, such a battle is against thought control itself.1

It’s also very easy to take things too far – to, in a desire to defend the language in the face of the uncaring barbarian hordes, blindly advocate for dogmatic adherence to every half-remembered rule from highschool and the canonical meanings of every word as defined in your dogeared copy of Strunk & White.

Such zealotry not only ignores the necessary and unstoppable evolution of language but also leads to the development of unexamined habits, the enemies of good writing. It’s not enough to follow rules about infinitives, prepositions or active voice without knowing why you’re following them. Good writing does not come of rigorous application of arbitrary rules, but of careful thought and practice. If you become too obsessed with following rules, you end up using your words to signal membership in a group (just like businesspeople, politicians and bad sportswriters) rather than to communicate your thoughts with wit and clarity.2

After finishing The Better Angels of Our Nature, a heavily researched book about violence in human societies, Steven Pinker started work on a writing style guide, perhaps as a palette cleanser. The Sense of Style is an Elements of Style for the modern writer. It eschews Will Strunk’s firm, commanding tone for one more inviting of discussion. Rather than issuing Good Writing Commandments full-formed from an immaculate mind, Pinker strives to derive them from research on human cognition and memory, from the prose of classic writers and from grammatical foundations. Where these sources fail, he defers to the consensus of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel.

The Sense of Style packs a remarkable amount of valuable content into its short span, covering everything from the nuts and bolts of word choice and sentence structure to principles of organisation, flow and how to think about your subject.

A chapter entitled “The curse of knowledge” puts forward a convincing theory about the biggest problem in writing: writers who don’t know what they know and don’t fully consider the reader’s perspective. Pinker provides the following example from a linguistics paper:3

The slow and integrative nature of conscious perception is confirmed behaviourally by observations such as the “rabbit illusion” and its variants, where the way in which a stimulus is ultimately perceived is influenced by poststimulus events arising several hundreds of milliseconds after the original stimulus.

Which means:

If you close your eyes and someone taps you a few times on the wrist, then on the elbow, and then on the shoulder, it feels like a string of taps running up the length of your arm, like a hopping rabbit […] a person’s conscious experience of where the early taps fell depends on the location of the later taps.

Pinker hypothesises that the paper’s writer wrote about “poststimulus events” and “conscious perception” rather than hopping rabbits because of the abstractions and particular focus inherent in how they think about their work.

…a tap on the wrist became a “stimulus” and a tap on the elbow became a “poststimulus event,” because the writers cared about the fact that one event came after the other and no longer cared about the fact that the events were taps on the arm.

To write clearly, it is necessary to unburden yourself of the abstractions you think in – many of which you probably don’t know you have – and try to approach your subject from the perspective of someone who knows a lot less than you do.

Pinker dedicates another chapter to explaining the mechanics of sentence construction using syntax trees. He explains why English grammar as it is traditionally taught can be so confusing – grammatical categories (noun, verb, adjective) are mixed up with grammatical functions (subject, object, modifier) and semantic categories (action, thing, doer, done-to) – and why sentences like

The view that beating a third-rate Serbian military that for the third time in a decade is brutally targeting civilians is hardly worth the effort is not based on a lack of understanding of what is occurring on the ground.

are so difficult to parse (there’s too much going on in the middle of the tree).

Reading The Sense of Style was a long string of “aha!” moments for me. Pinker states and justifies much of my vague intuition about writing and grammar, in addition to changing my mind about several things. One of the more surprising and gratifying realisation moments came from this little nugget near the end of the book:

Not only are commas partly regulated by prosody, but until recently that was their principal function. Writers used to place them wherever they thought a pause felt natural, regardless of the sentence’s syntax:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I always knew there was something off about Austen’s commas!

The Sense of Style has been criticised by the New Yorker (the top result when I do a Google search for the book’s title – clearly the Goog knows what a contrarian I am) for a “tendency to add complexity, ambiguity, and doubt” with his usage rules. This is a fair comment, but I’d call it a pro rather than a con. Pinker realises that writing is full of subtleties and judgement calls – rather than pretend that there exists a set of exact transforms for turning bad writing into good, he emphasises the careful processes that need to go into writing well and the importance of context and case-by-case thought.

The Sense of Style, is, as its subtitle states, a thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. I’ve long been looking for a replacement for the crusty (but still lovable) Elements of Style as my go-to book about writing, and this is it. It’s a rigorously researched, logical and entirely reasonable set of guidelines for good writing, and it treats the reader not as a child to be instructed but as an equal adult in a discussion.

Although I do agree with the New Yorker that Pinker could have included fewer quotes from his wife’s novels.

  1. A rebuttal of Orwell’s language theory, courtesy of the ever-contrarian Slate.
  2. But even if you go through a rebirth, abandon your Grammar Nazi SS uniform, stop correcting people and argue for the evolution of language rather than its preservation in amber, you’ll still get called a Grammar Nazi for caring about language at all.
  3. Elsewhere in The Sense of Style, Pinker demonstrates the necessity of giving examples when describing terms. Unix man pages could learn a thing or two.