The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker

Daniel Wahl reviews The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. 368 pp. $17.00 (paperback).

Steven Pinker begins a new book on writing by finding faults in old books on writing—chief among them, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White.

Strunk and White, for all their intuitive feel for style, had a tenuous grasp of grammar. They misdefined terms such as phrase, participle, and relative clause, and in steering their readers away from passive verbs and toward active transitive ones they botched their examples of both. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground, for instance, is not in the passive voice, nor does The cock’s crow came with dawn contain a transitive verb. Lacking the tools to analyze language, they often struggled when turning their intuitions into advice, vainly appealing to the writer’s “ear.” And they did not seem to realize that some of the advice contradicted itself: “Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice” uses the passive voice to warn against the passive voice. (p. 2)

Pinker suggests that the problem with such books goes beyond faulty definitions and what he calls contradictory advice.

[T]he authors of the classic manuals wrote as if the language they grew up with were immortal, and failed to cultivate an ear for ongoing change. Strunk and White, writing in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, condemned then-new verbs like personalize, finalize, host, chair, and debut, and warned writers never to use fix for “repair” or claim for “declare.” Worse, they justified their peeves with cockamamie rationalizations. The verb contact, they argued, is “vague and self-important. Do not contact people; get in touch with them, look them up, phone them, find them, or meet them.” But of course the vagueness of to contact is exactly why it caught on: sometimes a writer doesn’t need to know how one person will get in touch with another, as long as he does so. (pp. 3–4)

In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, armed with, as he puts it, “an understanding of grammatical phenomena” and “a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading,” Pinker claims to have made significant improvements over the older books.

By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts. Providing reasons should also allow writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, mindful of what they are designed to accomplish, rather than robotically. (p. 6)

That’s a bold goal. Does Pinker achieve it?

The Sense of Style is certainly different from many classics on writing, and from The Elements of Style in particular. For example, it is often humorous. It contains numerous comic strips, many poking fun at academic gobbledygook, and it shares a long list of sentences that are written ambiguously and are unintentionally comical—sentences such as “Miss Charlene Mason sang, ‘I Will Not Pass This Way Again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation” (p. 141).

Contrast such humor to the following passage, which you may recall from Strunk and White:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it.

That kind of seriousness is rare in The Sense of Style, especially by comparison. But then Pinker is not attempting to join the ranks of those who wrote classics such as The Elements of Style. He calls them “graybeards” or “language grumps.” Nor he did write The Sense of Style for readers who treasure such older books. Pinker calls such people “anal retentive” and characterizes them as “Miss Thistlebottoms.” Pinker presents himself as the opposite of such people—as the kind of person who does not treat the principles of good writing “as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation” (p. 3).

Pinker’s approach has many implications, but suffice it to say that if you treasure the old books, you will find yourself repeatedly (and unfairly) used as a foil for Pinker himself—the relaxed, understanding grammarian. You will find much of the humor in the book decidedly not funny. And having read those other guidebooks, you will realize that, despite Pinker’s hype, not much of substance is new in The Sense of Style.

To be sure, Pinker makes some valid points about what good writing is. He observes, for example, that “Good writing starts strong”—that it “is understood with the mind’s eye,” “takes advantage of a reader’s expectations of where to go next,” “accompanies the reader on a journey,” and (you guessed it) “finishes strong” (pp. 13, 16, 39, 26). He also offers good advice about how to improve one’s writing. He says, for example, that writers should “be clear about the topic” they’re discussing, read aloud what they wrote about it, and then read it again, “ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar” (pp. 146, 115, 76). All of this is worthy advice: it’s just not new. The same is true for the other points he makes. So, if you come to the book with expectations for great new insights about how to produce good writing, you’ll be disappointed.

Of course, nothing is wrong with repeating timeless principles, nor with emphasizing some old principles over others. Pinker does this, and at times does it well. Consider, for instance, his identification of “the curse of knowledge,” which he defines as the “difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something you know.” This, Pinker says, is “the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose” (pp. 59, 61).

It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail. (p. 61)

Pinker observes that one of the causes of this curse is “chunking”—the ability of our brain to “package ideas into bigger and bigger units” (p. 67).

As children we see one person hand a cookie to another, and we remember it as an act of giving. One person gives another one a cookie in exchange for a banana; we chunk the two acts of giving together and think of the sequence as trading. Person 1 trades a banana to Person 2 for a piece of shiny metal, because he knows he can trade it to Person 3 for a cookie; we think of it as selling. Lots of people buying and selling make up a market. Activity aggregated over many markets gets chunked into the economy. The economy now can be thought of as an entity which responds to actions by central banks; we call that monetary policy. One kind of monetary policy, which involves the central bank buying private assets, is chunked as quantitative easing. And so on.

As we read and learn, we master a vast number of these abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit which we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name. An adult mind that is brimming with chunks is a powerful engine of reason, but it comes with a cost: a failure to communicate with other minds that have not mastered the same chunks. Many educated adults would be left out of a discussion that criticized the president for not engaging in more “quantitative easing,” though they would understand the process if it were spelled out. A high school student might be left out if you spoke about “monetary policy,” and a schoolchild might not even follow a conversation about “the economy.”

The amount of abstraction that a writer can get away with depends on the expertise of her readership. But divining the chunks that have been mastered by a typical reader requires a gift of clairvoyance with which few of us are blessed. When we are apprentices in our chosen specialty, we join a clique in which, it seems to us, everyone else seems to know so much! And they talk among themselves as if their knowledge were second nature to every educated person. As we settle in to the clique, it becomes our universe. We fail to appreciate that it is a tiny bubble in a vast multiverse of other cliques. When we make first contact with the aliens in other universes and jabber at them in our local code, they cannot understand us without a sci-fi Universal Translator. (pp. 68–69)

Pinker is at his best when talking about this curse. His writing is clear, his observations are important (although he ought to know that the president doesn’t engage in quantitative easing), and his advice is generally useful (even if you’ve heard it many times before). Indeed, it is not hard to imagine Pinker’s discussion of “the curse of knowledge” bringing a smile to the face of Miss Thistlebottom.

Unfortunately, however, Pinker is not immune to the curse. On the contrary, he has a bad case of it. For example, he embarks on a long discussion of the “deep structure” of grammar and how to visualize the syntax of a sentence—a discussion that perhaps will interest the very people he spends much of the book mocking, but that will leave many other readers wondering what he is talking about. The same is true for a section on usage, where paragraphs such as this abound:

The Cambridge Grammar suggests that in contemporary English many speakers have settled on a rule that allows a nominative pronoun like I or he after the coordinator and. And even more of them—the ones who say Me and Amanda are going to the mall—allow an accusative pronoun before and. It is a natural preference, because the accusative is the default case in English, occurring in a motley range of contexts (such as the bare exclamation Me!?), pretty much anywhere it is not preempted by the more selective nominative or genitive. (pp. 206–7)

In this section, too, Pinker chastises the “language grumps” and “sticklers”—pointing out that their advice admits exceptions and that proper usage is far more complex than they would have people believe. It is important to know of such complexities and about how to manage them in one’s writing, and Pinker makes some good points in this regard. However, his response to such complexities often can be reduced to just two words: “It’s complicated!”—which is of little help to readers or writers.

Pinker’s criticisms of traditional rules of grammar and punctuation often are of equally little help. He sometimes says that a rule is wrong because many great writers have broken it. Other times, he says a rule is invalid because many people do not follow it. Sometimes he falls back on tradition in defense of a rule, such as when he says, “Deep in the mists of time, someone decided that an apostrophe doesn’t belong in a possessive pronoun, and you’ll just have to live with it” (p. 296). This approach does not make the rules easier to remember; it makes them harder to remember—or even to comprehend. And it is no improvement over what he calls the “ham-fisted advice” of those two old “grumps,” Strunk and White.

That brings us to yet another problem with The Sense of Style, and the last one I will mention.

Pinker routinely sets up Strunk and White as straw men, attacks them, and then brands himself as some kind of revolutionary hero for . . . repeating what they said. Recall, for example, Pinker’s claim that Strunk and White contradicted themselves when they said, “Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice” (p. 2). Strunk and White’s point there is true. Nothing about it is contradictory, and it amounts to good advice. They did not say, “never use the passive voice.” They simply pointed out that the active voice often improves an otherwise lame sentence. Nor does the fact that their sentence is in the passive voice detract from its truth. Pinker’s criticism on this, and many other counts, makes no sense.

As he does in this particular criticism, Pinker often does in plain sight what he repeatedly accuses the Miss Thistlebottoms of doing: He makes a commandment out of a principle, a dogma out of a rule that may or may not apply depending on the context. This is ironic, given that Pinker presents himself as the messenger of anti-dogma in this field.

Here is more from Pinker about his supposedly groundbreaking research about the passive voice:

[W]e now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one. (p. 3)

Did Pinker not see where Strunk and White wrote that their advice to use the active voice “does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary”? That is only six sentences away from the line he quoted, and examples follow it.

Similarly, in a chapter on how to become a better writer by becoming a better reader, Pinker says:

Savoring good prose is not just a more effective way to develop a writerly ear than obeying a set of commandments; it’s a more inviting one. Much advice on style is stern and censorious. A recent bestseller advocated “zero tolerance” for errors and brandished the words horror, satanic, ghastly, and plummeting standards on its first page. The classic manuals, written by starchy Englishmen and rock-ribbed Yankees, try to take all the fun out of writing, grimly adjuring the writer to avoid offbeat words, figures of speech, and playful alliteration. (p. 12)

Of course savoring good prose is essential to developing a writer’s ear, and of course it is more inviting than obeying a set of commandments. But what rock-ribbed Yankees could Pinker possibly be referring to here? If he is again trying to lash at Strunk and White, he might consider rereading their work, including, for instance, this:

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

A sad truth about Pinker’s The Sense of Style is that much of its sound advice about good writing echoes the advice found in the very classics that it both misrepresents and unfairly attacks.

None of this is to say that writers or would-be writers won’t profit from reading The Sense of Style. They can, and many undoubtedly have. But better books on writing are out there—books that, despite their flaws, are more concise, more helpful, and less laden with misrepresentations of other people’s work.

For example, Ayn Rand’s The Art of Nonfiction beautifully presents key elements of communication in a lively, positive, and liberating way. Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story covers the importance of structure in good writing as well as how to achieve it in one’s own. Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English covers practically everything writers need to know about grammar—and does so with much humor to boot. Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace covers everything from when to use the passive voice to how to revise your writing so that it is more concise, coherent, and elegant. (His is, in fact, a true manual on style, the best of its kind that I have read, and the wheat to Pinker’s chaff.) Not least, The Elements of Style, regardless of its imperfections, remains as valuable today as ever because its central principles are timeless.

If you’re interested in improving your writing, I recommend these books over The Sense of Style. If you’ve already read them, I advise reading them again, as subsequent readings of such great books yield even greater benefits. In hindsight, that’s what I wish I had done, rather than search in vain for something new and profound in Pinker’s The Sense of Style.

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