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Steven Pinker Wants You to Write Well — and He Thinks He’s the Guy to Teach You

The prolific scholar and linguist Steven Pinker adds a volume to the already crowded field of grammar and usage guides. But does he have anything new to say?

In an age when academic success is often predicated on ever-greater specialization in a scholar’s area of expertise — with the result that academic publishing is often quite narrow in the scope of its subject and its audience is limited to a small band of fellow travelers — Steven Pinker has made an impressive reputation for himself by producing estimably erudite and energetically argued tomes that traverse massive expanses of intellectual territory.

For example, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined draws on a range of evidence — statistics, historical anecdotes, literary works, pedagogical manuals, and so on — to make the case that humanity as a whole is becoming remarkably less inclined to violence of all kinds, and generally less inclined to boorish behavior in general, when compared to past ages. Before Better Angels of our Nature Pinker’s work was more narrowly delimited but no less ambitious in its interests. He published a host of books that explore the relationship between language, the human mind, and the evolution of the human species. As these subjects suggest, Pinker’s home discipline is psychology (more specifically “psycholinguistics”) but he never shies away from opportunities to suggest implications of his research for other fields.

All of which brings us to the recently released paperback version of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (note: not “a” sense of style) which is “designed for people who know how to write and want to write better”; in other words, people whose English composition skills are basically competent but who aspire to greater fluidity, grace, power, and style in their prose. That aim immediately moves the work out of the same realm, or at least neighborhood, as classic “prose manuals” such as the venerable Elements of Style, which had the much more modest aim of offering very basic advice and instruction in writing. (Perhaps losing sight of this difference, Pinker sometimes takes works such as this to task for their pedantry, but as anyone who has taught writing before knows, basic competence is not so easy an ability to achieve for many people and often requires relatively firm and simple guidelines, at least initially.)

As Pinker acknowledges, even the field of more ambitious writing guides is crowded, so we might well ask what The Sense of Style adds to the cadre. To begin to answer that question, it’s worth noting that in the book’s second chapter, a sizeable portion of the first section of the work, Pinker spends much time decrying the manifold sins of academic prose — the obfuscating, jargon-filled verbosity that pervades so much contemporary scholarship (at least by Pinker’s lights). This may be a fair complaint, but it’s hardly novel. Do we really need another screed against bad academic writing? Academics are likely either to agree with Pinker or reject his criticism out of hand. The vast majority of non-academics will surely not care.

But the denunciations of bad prose, which is not limited to academia, serve to underscore the value of what Pinker calls “classic style”. It’s difficult to pin down what exactly this is; it’s not, however, necessarily simple or plain or easily comprehensible or utilitarian writing. Rather, “In classic style the writer has worked hard to find something worth showing and the perfect vantage point from which to see it. The reader may have to work hard to discern it, but her efforts will be rewarded.” As noted, this is not terribly exact and even in the glossary appended to the work proper “classic prose” is (borrowing from another work, Clear and Simple as the Truth) described as, “a prose style in which the writer appears to direct the reader’s attention to an objective, concrete truth about the world by engaging the reader in conversation.” Clearly, we are better off looking for examples of this style rather than defining it and, in fairness, the aim of The Sense of Style is mainly to demonstrate this style through copious carefully analyzed examples (or to display its antitheses).

Indeed, a portion of the work is devoted to diagramming phrases, clauses, and sentences — a respectable but largely discarded practice that Pinker transforms into a head spinning exercise akin to graphing linear equations. While this material is certainly impressive, it’s not terribly enjoyable. For a better and more instructive experience, the reader might look to Virginia Tufts’ elegant but overlooked classic, Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style where the author similarly examines what makes good sentences successful (but does so with a grace and deftness of touch often lacking here). For a more general guide to good writing, he or she may wish to consult the still unsurpassed On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which is always worth perusing.

At this point it may be worth mentioning another aspect of Pinker’s career: a habit of asserting the applicability of scientific methodologies to fields where they might not be an obvious fit. Some might see this habit as a kind of liberal scholarly ecumenicism, but others have bitterly resented it as arrogant overstepping. For example, when a few years ago Pinker suggested that the humanities, particularly literary scholarship, start adapting means of establishing objective knowledge rather than mere subjective opinion, Leon Wieseltier, the then long-time literary editor of the The New Republic, responded with a ferocious diatribe essentially telling Pinker that he could take his prescriptions for understanding literature and go straight to a place much worse than Harvard (Pinker’s place of employment) with them.

A feud, or at least contretemps ensued, that momentarily resurrected the argument that the sciences and humanities are two entirely separate and unbridgeable realms of human inquiry. In the case of The Sense of Style the elaborate diagrammatic analyses of sentences — abounding in lines, circles, loops and triangles — seem to recall Pinker’s insistence elsewhere on the need for a more rigorous, and scientific, method for understanding how language functions. For the most part, though, Pinker’s general thoughts on writing and language, while sound, are not terribly original. For example”

The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal of lexicographers but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors. That consensus can change over the years in a process as unplanned and uncontrollable as the vagaries of fashion.

In other words, language is organic: it grows, changes, evolves. (Henry Hitchen’s The Language Wars: A History of Proper English from a few years ago explores this very issue in excellent fashion.) Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to ask if writing is wrong or right according to some transcendent standard, but whether it’s effective, given the context in which it appears, the audience for which it’s intended, and the meaning it wishes to convey.

It’s with this point in mind that Pinker’s volume proves most useful. The sixth and final chapter — “Telling Right from Wrong — is the longest and probably the most valuable portion of the book. In it, Pinker exhaustingly explores many of the rules of “correct” English and tests their worth — everything from the well-known injunction against the split infinitive to use of the much more obscure predicative nominative. The section also contains a lengthy examination of “diction” in which Pinker examines commonly used words and phrases and distinguishes between standard and non-standard usages, and advises readers on whether the latter are acceptable. The standard of discernment throughout “Telling Right from Wrong” is always whether a rule or construction abets or hinders the composition of classic prose rather than some appeal to inviolable authority. All in all, this section serves as a very helpful reference guide for both commonplace and esoteric grammatical questions, though it doesn’t make for the most engaging reading.

Pinker concludes The Sense of Style by asserting that the aim of good writing is “to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.” This is an entirely admirable goal and reminders of its importance cannot be made often enough. But it’s not so easy to make the case in an original fashion. Where Pinker does so, The Sense of Style is a welcome addition to the long shelf of books on grammar and usage. Where it does not, it’s worth remembering that the world does not lack for worthy predecessors to this work, many of which Pinker himself cites.

RATING 6 / 10
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