The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is one of the best books about writing that I have read. (Not that I have read that many books about writing, but I have read some. Those that comes to mind are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style — didn’t leave much of an impression — Deidre McCloskey’s Economical Writing — did leave a huge impression — much of Barzun’s Simple & Direct and William’s Style — that I didn’t finish them says a lot — Stephen King’s On Writing and the edited volume Ernest Hemingway On Writing — King and Hemingway are not exclusively, but still largely, on writing. Further reading on rhetorics are McCloskey’s The Rhetorics of Economics and Cicero’s De Oratore. Books about reading — surprisingly readable — include Nick Hornby’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Urchin in the StormUrchin is a collection of essays where Gould pursues a special kind of book review, discussing books in an idea-wide scope; as instructive as anything. But I get carried away.)

Pinker’s The Sense of Style is great, perhaps only surpassed by McCloskey’s Economical Writing, in part because of McCloskey’s brevity. But Pinker has so much knowledge and so much to tell; he will be forgiven. What I get from McCloskey and that I miss in Pinker is an account of, and introduction to, the struggle of writing — writing obviously comes easily to Pinker and it seemingly never struck him that people struggle with it and that dealing with this struggle is, sometimes, half the job. Further, McCloskey tells us of the importance of reading well in order to write well; I think McCloskey has an important point that is missed by many, and I would appreciate Pinker’s views on it. Another minor thing pointed out by McCloskey is the value of prudence when it comes to visual effects like italics and bold face, and the disadvantage of distractions like footnotes (the latter pertains in particular to non-fictional writing, of course); I also miss these perspectives in Pinker.

But (again) Pinker is a very great book on writing. He starts out by providing samples of great writing (one example here) and then explaining, in details, what’s so particularly great about the specific examples. (Pinker uses a lot of examples — perhaps too much.) Next, he introduces the classic style, the style of writing he recommend, in particular for clear, non-fictional writing.

Classic style is an ideal. Not all prose should be classic, and not all writers can carry off the pretense. But knowing the hallmarks of classic style will make anyone a better writer, and it is the strongest cure I know for the disease that enfeebles academic, bureaucratic, corporate, legal, and official prose [p. 31*].

To just adopt the classic style is not all that easy, however, and this is one place where I wish Pinker would take a lesson from McCloskey. While Pinker teaches us what the classic style is and why it works, I missed something on how to achieve it. (Perhaps it’s all there, but I didn’t get it?)

Pinker moves on to discuss the curse of knowledge that is the difficulty involved in understanding what your reader knows and what your reader does not know, and our tendency to overestimate what is known. Pinker advice to “always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel” (p. 76).

Then Pinker turns to grammar, that old-fashioned subject that will bore you to death (or so must they think, those who think the grammar support provided by most word processing softwares nowadays is sufficient):

But grammar should not be thought of as an ordeal of jargon and drudgery […] It should be thought of instead as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head to another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful. By understanding how the various features of grammar are designed to make sharing possible, we can put them to use in writing more clearly, correctly, and gracefully [p. 79].

Grammar brings together three things: “the web of ideas in our head, the string of words that comes out of our mouth or fingers, and the tree of syntax that converts the first into the second” (p. 79). Pinker spends considerable time on the tree-like structure of sentences; probably both important and useful, but I honestly have forgotten most of it.

One important lesson I do remember, so important that Pinker returns to it on several occasions, is that the passive voice do have a place in good writing, and is even necessary at times:

[Earlier] we saw one of the benefits of the passive, namely that the agent of the event, expressed in the by-phrase, can go unmentioned. This is handy for mistake-makers who are trying to keep their names out of the spot-light and for narrators who want you to know that helicopters were used to put out some fires but don’t think you need to know that it was a guy named Bob who flew one of the helicopters. Now we see the other major benefit of the passive: it allows the doer to be mentioned later in the sentence than the done-to. […] The passive allows a writer to postpone the mention of a doer that is heavy, old news, or both [p. 132].

I find this lesson about the passive extraordinarily important. Ever since I read McCloskey, who dismisses the passive in forceful turns, I have avoided it like the plague. Now, I relax a little bit, knowing that submitting to a passive phrase does not have to mean that I am a useless writer.

Appreciating the treelike nature of a text can also help you understand one of the few devices available in nontechnical prose to visually mark the structure of discourse: the paragraph break. Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to build a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch of a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimited by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, take a breather, assimilate what he has read, and then find his place again on the page [p. 145].

Two cents from McCloskey here: Align, in Pinker’s words, the units of discourse with your paragraphs: One idea, one unit of thought, per paragraph, and the structure of your argument will become more clear.

On page 156 and onward, Pinker discusses the imperative Avoid Elegant Variation in the context of one of his many examples. He does, however, also point to situations where it is necessary to avoid repeating words, for example to avoid confusion. But the general advice is still to avoid variation for variation’s sake. Pinker is in full agreement with McCloskey here, who is rather stern if I remember correctly. Variation leads Pinker onto a discussion of coherence, of utmost important to good writers, of course. And coherence is related to the curse of knowledge:

Figuring out the right level of explicitness for coherence relations is a major reason that a writer needs to think hard about the state of knowledge of her readers and show a few of them a draft to see whether she got it right. It’s an aspect of the art of writing which depends on intuition, experience, and guesswork, but there is also an overarching guideline. Humans are cursed with attributing  too much of their own knowledge to others [curse of knowledge], which means that overall there is a greater danger of prose being confusing because it has too few connectives than pedantic because it has too many. When in doubt, connect [pp. 167-168].

I have a rumor (among me and myself, at least) for being pedantic when it comes to writing. Mostly, I find it a valuable trait.

Pinker end up concluding that coherence amounts to design:

There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version of one’s notes. A coherent text is a designed object: an ordered tree of sections within sections, crisscrossed by arcs that track topics, points, actors, and themes, and held together by connectors that tie one proposition to the next. Like other designed objects, it comes about not by accident but by drafting a blueprint, attending to details, and maintaining a sense of harmony and balance [p. 186].

I tend to agree.

The final chapter of Pinker’s Style is devoted to a list of hundred common issues in grammar, word choice, and punctuation, with Pinker’s advice on how to navigate them. Among them, the dreaded dangling modifiers, that versus which, a fun story of when fear of a split infinitive lead to a crisis of governance (in the US, of course), and ninety seven more valuable lessons that I am glad I now have available in my office.

I hope to have convinced you that dealing with matters of usage is not like playing chess, proving theorems, or solving textbook problems in physics, where the rules are clear and flouting them is an error. It is more like research, journalism, criticism, and other exercises of discernment. In considering questions of usage, a writer must critically evaluate claims of correctness, discount the dubious ones, and make choices which inevitably trade off conflicting values [p. 300].

I never intended to put Pinker and McCloskey up against each other, but it kind of turned out that way anyhow. (I remember more from McCloskey than I’m aware!) Which I prefer? I think someone who want to write better should read both, but start with McCloskey, for brevity if for nothing else. They complement each other. And I cannot choose. Pinker provide a much more comprehensive treatment, and is much more an expert. McCloskey is refreshing, in particular when she addresses peculiarities of economic writing, and should not be missed. For all her amateurism, her guide made me appreciate the value and necessity of good writing, and provided me with an understanding that let me navigate other treatises with ease and joy.

* Page numbers refer to the first edition, Allen Lane, 2014.



Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker”

  1. Classic Style according to Steven Pinker | Kvams Says:

    […] Pinker has a piece on that has much of the essence of his book The Sense of Style. In the Chronicle-piece, he describes classic style, which he promotes as the best style for […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: