Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

NY: Viking, 2014.

Pinker is one of those “public intellectuals” whose work is thoughtful and always worth paying attention to, but who would probably publish in obscurity if his own style wasn’t so appealing and lively. He’s both a cognitive scientist and a linguist with a string of awards, and he has the knack of explaining complex ideas in a way that the non-specialist can grasp.

His investigation here centers on whether the English language is really decaying at the rate the prescriptivists claim, and he cites a long list of sources to demonstrate that this complaint appears in every generation going back many centuries. The older generation of thoughtful writers has always thought the kids were murdering the language. So don’t blame public education, or dislike of reading, or the Internet, or the rise of phone-texting. Blame instead the natural and unavoidable evolution of the language — any language — and the inability of many people to understand and accept the process. The opening chapter, in fact, “Good Writing,” ought to be required reading for every student, teacher, educational administrator, editor, publisher, parent, and grandparent.

Subsequent chapters examine the merits of “classic style” as promoted by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, and the actual causes of incomprehensibility (it’s difficult for us to imagine what it’s like for others not to know something we ourselves know), and whether we should resurrect the diagramming of sentences in English classes (those under forty probably don’t even know what this means, so the author explains it very thoroughly), and how to structure your prose in such a way that all motion is forward, along with the reader’s attention, and how to come to grips with all those rule-laden guidebooks on grammar and punctuation and usage (their authors do a lot of deploring).

In that last section, Pinker actually makes usage recommendations, but always from the viewpoint of clarity and making useful distinctions — although he still generally sides with the descriptivists. Even though I’ve been a freelance editor for several decades, I try to do the same — but it’s a struggle, I admit. And there’s definitely a difference between evolution in usage and mere sloppiness in writing.

Any person who writes for a living, or as part of their job, or for pleasure, ought to sit down with this volume and think seriously about all the things it has to say.

Published in: on 20 March 2015 at 5:33 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Pinker is a genius. Thanks for sharing! If you’re ever interested in some awesome book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!

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