Sunday, September 06, 2015

Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style

I read Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century! As is too often the case, the sentence after the colon sounds pompous but the book doesn't. I really enjoyed it because he provides clear yet undogmatic explanations about how to write in a way that makes your ideas understandable. Years ago I read Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which I found sometimes funny but also pissy. Apparently the latter aspect generated all kinds of reviews about how her own writing violated her own rules.

Pinker makes plenty of assertions but he makes clear that rules shouldn't be concrete just because people say they should be. The English language is constantly evolving, and in fact many of the so-called "rules" are myths, unsupported by anything (take, for example, the split infinitive). He tries to cut through the pedantry to make writing do what you want. Poor writing leads your reader in the wrong direction, which is precisely what you need to avoid. Make word or punctuation choices based on where you want the reader to focus. Think about prosody, especially with commas. Ask yourself if you are being unnecessarily posh/stuffy. Don't fall into what he calls "professional narcissism" (p. 186) where your own expertise leads you (even unconsciously, I think) to become lazy abut organization and jargon. On that point he also writes, "The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose" (p. 61).

Finally, I like how he cites the ways in which young people have for centuries been accused of butchering the English language. As we get older we get set in our ways and look down on those coming after us. We're always wrong.


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