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? . . .