The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker, book review: Ways to write in the 21st century


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At a Scottish school I briefly attended as a child, I noticed a leather strip hanging on the wall behind the teacher's desk. "Whatever's that?" I whispered to my neighbour. "It's a tawse. For belting you if you mangle your parsing." I made sure never to mangle my grammar.

Eminent psycholinguist Steven Pinker proposes cognitive science as the basis for clarity of written communication. Good writing must abide by the processes according to which the mind thinks, composes, reads, remembers. Misleadingly titled, The Sense of Style directs itself almost exclusively at non-fiction writers and their dilemmas. Pinker charts a course between rigid prescriptivists and laid-back descriptivists. The former administer the mind-forged manacles of grammatical correctness; the latter defer only to spoken usage.

Much of his advice is sound commonsense, supported on a spine of cognitive science. In writing, communication of meaning is primary. Pinker's bête noir is the otiose language of academics who perpetrate obfuscating jargon and labyrinthine syntax. What Pinker calls "the curse of knowledge" consists in the cognoscenti's narcissistic ignorance of what it's like "for someone else not to know something that you know". His killer dissection of John Keegan's A History of Warfare demonstrates a mental activity Pinker calls "chunking": reducing abstruse thoughts to private phrases or short-cuts. My chunks are your stumbling blocks.

Pinker's cure-all is "classic style", clear, communicative, cogent. With reservations, he loves style manuals like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. If I like them less, it's because trite manuals for aspiring writers are legion. The only one I use with students is Raymond Queneau's timelessly delicious Exercises in Style (1947), which recounts the same story in 99 different ways. Humanist and humorist, Queneau, even in translation, has style in spades.

A style expert must demonstrate consummate style. "Murder your darlings," Arthur Quiller-Couch instructed Cambridge students in 1916. Pinker's first chapter, with its feeble close readings of undistinguished textual excerpts, is a darling ripe for execution. But once underway, The Sense of Style is a canny and punchy polemic. Valuing images as mnemonics, Pinker coins them memorably: verbal coffins, zombie nouns, morbidly obese phrases. Sugaring his pill with cartoons, he salts it with diagrams. His manner varies between the expository and the ludic, mandarin and vernacular. A favoured quirk is the blowing of extended raspberries: language purists are "sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots ... grammar Nazis and the Gotcha! Gang."

Pinker offers comfort to the multitudes who feel flummoxed by the bitter and windy debate about correctness. He manifests his own foibles. Permissive on the subject of dangling modifiers, prepositions at the end of sentences, 'their' used as singular, Pinker has pet likes and hates about distinctions between similar-sounding words. "And now the moment I've been waiting for: I get to be a purist!" The misuse of criteria as a singular noun irks him as badly as "nails on a chalkboard". But you're fine to confuse Frankenstein with his monster and feel free to equate masterful with masterly.

I don't always concur with Pinker's grammatical imprimaturs, preferring to hang on to structural conventions until usage has entirely undermined them. But perhaps that's the tawse talking.