Pinker, Steven. 2014. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin, 359 p.
We editors love our style guides and accumulate them by the dozen so we can seek insights to solve vexing editorial problems. But if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we return to some guides more than others—usually the ones that support our preferences and prejudices. Even for those references, we sometimes wonder whether certain recommendations make sense, or whether they’re just rules for the sake of rules—the author’s prejudices carved in stone, as in Theodore Bernstein’s eponymous “Miss Thistlebottom” or even The Elements of Style, which William Strunk began carving in stone nearly a century ago.
In The Sense of Style, neurolinguist Steven Pinker reminds us of these problems, and also that languages change, that the notion of the younger generation losing all communication skills dates back to at least Biblical times, and that to be defensible, style guidelines should be based on modern psychological, neurological, and statistical knowledge that supports improved communication. As Pinker explains (p. 7):
“The sense of style” has a double meaning. The word sense, as in “the sense of sight” and “a sense of humor,” can refer to a faculty of mind, in this case the faculties of comprehension that resonate to a well-crafted sentence. It can also refer to “good sense” as opposed to “nonsense,” in this case the ability to discriminate between the principles that improve the quality of prose and the superstitions, fetishes, shibboleths, and initiation ordeals that have been passed down in the traditions of usage.
His focus in this book is on “principles that improve,” and in choosing this goal, he sets himself a thorny challenge: Can he live up to his own criteria? By and large, yes.
Pinker begins with the notion that we learn style from writers we enjoy reading, and that figuring out why we enjoy them requires some “reverse-engineering” of the prose to see what tricks, including a lack of artifice, the writer used. He doesn’t explicitly note how much of this emulation is unconscious, and doesn’t require rigorous editorial analysis; gifted writers seem able to adopt a style without conscious analysis. Although writing resembles speech, which we instinctively acquire without formal training, writing must be learned, and emulation is one way to learn. Writing borrows many of the tools of speech (enough so that reading text aloud reveals infelicities that are invisible in print), but sacrifices the visual and other cues that accompany speech. Pinker therefore considers writing a “metaphorical” conversation in which we infer the listener and their responses. (In so doing, he reminds us of the technical writer’s mantra: understand your audience and keep them in mind throughout the communication.)
Pinker builds on this recognition of the audience to distinguish between several stylistic approaches, including: classic style, in which the author wishes only to communicate a truth and enlighten an audience; practical style, such as user manuals intended only to satisfy a reader’s functional needs; plain style, in which readers need no help understanding our message; and postmodern style, which is self-referential and often concerned more with the process than with the message. The latter is an example of what Pinker calls “professional narcissism”: focusing on the preoccupations of one’s field more than on one’s message. The distinctions seem less useful than how to align the different goals that authors and readers may have for a text, particularly when those goals conflict (e.g., propaganda). I suspect this would provide a more broadly applicable model. In any event, what makes classic style so often superior to the alternatives is how it implicitly treats writers and readers as equals. Classic writers need not insist that their truth is correct; rather, they present it in a way that makes readers feel intelligent and willing to accept. In particular, it conceals the details unless they are as important as the truth they support. (In so doing, Pinker reminds us of John Carroll’s minimalism.)
Pinker emphasizes the importance of context: When you start with context, this evokes a mental framework in which readers will fit new knowledge, and musters the cognitive tools they require to do so. Thus, this approach supports how our brains process language, a task that relies heavily on working memory to store chunks of text as we assemble them into meaning. In this context, Pinker disputes the effectiveness of diagramming sentences, which doesn’t clearly relate to how we use working memory to assemble meaning from a sentence. I’m sympathetic to his logic; I’ve always found diagrams arbitrary and dense in ways that discouraged me from learning how to use them. Instead, he prefers word trees because they’re clearer and relate more obviously to how we break language into chunks. As a result, they’re more effective at revealing structural problems. I’m not convinced, but if sentence diagrams don’t work for you, why not try trees? Incidentally, this discussion is closely related to Miller’s “magical number 7,” which is poorly understood by technical communicators (Hart 2006), but Pinker reminds us why it’s important: to avoid overwhelming readers. Placing new information in an evoked context is why approaches based on “old, then new,” “given, then inferred,” “cause and effect,” and “summary, then elaboration” work so well: they support our use of working memory. He extends this logic in an interesting way by providing examples that illustrate why the advice to “keep related things close together” is less effective than “ensure that unrelated things are separated.”
Pinker discusses “garden paths”: careless structuring of an argument that leads readers to an inconsistent conclusion, forcing them to backtrack in search of the intended conclusion. As ways to avoid this, he discusses prosody (rhythm, pauses), punctuation, use of italics for emphasis, hyphenation for compounds, retention of structural clues (which, that, who) that aren’t essential for skilled readers, articles, avoidance of accidental juxtapositions (e.g., inadvertent phrasal verbs), avoidance of synonyms in favor of repetition (or using pronouns with clear antecedents), consistent wording, and structural parallelism. He distinguishes between lexical ambiguity (two words with one meaning or one word with multiple meanings) and syntactic ambiguity (unclear relationships among clauses). There’s reams of good advice on sentence-level coherence and logic, and on larger issues such as the importance of outlines in extending these “arcs of coherence” from sentences to manuscripts.
Pinker supports his principles with clear, relevant examples. Many of his rewriting examples are excellent and taught this old dog (with nearly 30 years experience barking at authors) a few new tricks. Pinker writes with clarity, insight, and often humor. However, one curious choice is to implement gender-neutral writing (a wise choice) by starting with male writer and female reader, then alternating roles, rather than using any of several less clunky workarounds, including the singular they (which he supports). It’s not distracting, just uncharacteristically clumsy, and making this point explicit draws unnecessary attention to the artifice.
A favorite quote (p. 57): “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.” Ironically, Pinker falls prey to this error (“the curse of knowledge”) in several places when he discusses points of grammar (sentence diagramming, genitives, cases, modal auxiliaries) that will be unfamiliar and off-putting to most writers—and to some editors—in his audience. These descriptions seem more appropriate for grammarians than writers, since the former have more patience for such minutiae. The book’s advice for writers remains sensible, persuasive, and valuable, particularly in the copious examples of how to fix turgid or unclear writing. But some writers may abandon the book when they encounter the denser explications, incorrectly assuming things will get worse. This quibble notwithstanding, Pinker retains a consistent focus on the reader’s needs throughout, and that may be the most important lesson any writer can learn.
I have strong sympathy for Pinker’s approach. I’ve often thought that if a style guideline can’t be explained and justified by how it clarifies and improves communication, it’s not worth following. Pinker agrees (p. 55): “[Something is] good advice only when a writer or editor understands why it’s being offered.” I’ve found that understanding the reason for a guideline helps me apply it and eliminates return visits to style guides in search of guidance that must be memorized rather than understood. Pinker adopts a primarily descriptive approach, based on the logic that language follows unspoken consensus rules that writers and editors ignore at their peril. But he doesn’t hesitate to be prescriptive when he can justify his prescriptions and proscriptions with logic or evidence. The long section on usage that concludes the book showcases his mixture of common sense and hard data. In a pleasantly human touch, it also unselfconsciously reveals his personal hobgoblins (some of which are charmingly cranky and curmudgeonly).
Pinker concludes with five points every writer (and every editor evaluating a writer’s argument) should remember: when in doubt, look things up (memory and opinion are fallible guides); ensure your arguments are sound (check your logic and facts); don’t confuse anecdote with real data (e.g., for usage); don’t oversimplify, particularly in the sense of binary thinking (cf. Hart 2005); and base your arguments on facts and reason, not emotional or ad hominem logic.
If you’re looking for a list of stylistic prescriptions and proscriptions, as in the Chicago Manual of Style, this isn’t the book for you, despite a decent index. But if you’re in search of new ways to think about why -scriptions arise, Pinker’s got you covered.
Bernstein, T.M. 1991. Miss Thistlebottom’s hobgoblins. The careful writer’s guide to the taboos, bugbears and outmoded rules of English usage. Douglas and McIntyre, 260 p.
Hart, G.J. 2005. Editorial: Binary thinking. the Exchange 12(3):2, 8–9. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2005/binary.htm>
Hart, G. 2006. The mythical, magical number 7. Intercom April 2006:38–39. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2006/magic7.htm>
Strunk, W. Jr. 1920. The Elements of Style. Harcourt, 52 p.
Geoff Hart is an STC Fellow with nearly 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, information designer, and French translator. He has published more than 400 articles, most available via his website (www.geoff-hart.com), as well as the book Effective Onscreen Editing. A popular speaker at the STC annual conference and STC chapter meetings, Geoff has given presentations and workshops on topics ranging from writing and editing to information design, cross-cultural communication, and workplace survival skills. He currently works as a freelance French translator and scientific editor, specializing in authors for whom English is a second language.