The Sense of Style. Steven Pinker.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Viking (Penguin), New York 2014. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. NF;12/14.

It’s hard to resist a chance to pick up useful hints about your writing, and see what a real expert has to say about the inner workings of language at the same time. This book delivers both. It’s sometimes very funny and quite nicely walks the line between bossing us around and helping us along. So it’s useful, informative, and at times fun. But for me it’s also a little overly technical, and strangely (for an original Canadian) exclusively American in its point of view.

Dr. Pinker leaves little doubt between the lines in this entertaining book that in his mind the United States is now the seat of authority on understanding of the English language. He is an impressive multiply-qualified expert, managing to span the archaic dichotomy of science (psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology) and the arts (linguistics and writing) and does so as a full professor at both Harvard and MIT. He is 60 years old.

He first establishes a fundamental writing stance he calls “classic style”: writing that shows the reader something real in the world and opens a conversation between the writer and the reader, who are presumed to be equals. Next, he criticizes self-conscious academic writing as making the mistake of thinking that the reader is interested in the writer’s tedious professional issues (“XYZ is a terribly complex problem…”), and that the reader shares the writer’s special knowledge. “The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.” says Pinker.

Sentence analysis is presented as a tree, so that an idea which appears as a linear sentence string, a manifestation of a “web” of thoughts in a writer’s mind, can be broken down into its parts. Here I was interested to appreciate that grammar seems to have undergone a major change shortly after I went to school. Pinker says that people over the age of 60, or who went to private schools, may name the parts of speech differently, and understand sentence structure differently. It is connectors, not conjunctions for example.

Finally, through presenting first some grammatical and literary rules which he feels do not need to be observed, and then others he thinks we ought to be following, he tackles the “prescriptive versus descriptive” disjunction in grammar and linguistics. He believes he ends the controversy between the two views of how we should describe and understand language by declaring there isn’t really a controversy, although it’s pretty clear by the end that he is on the “descriptive” side of that divide.

Correct usage rules are, he says, frozen historical accidents, similar to driving on the left side of the road. They have no advantage based in any rational authority, only one based in the convenience of consensus. They do change, like fashion, and nobody can stop that change. He has no patience with prohibiting split infinitives and other rules which he says were invented out of respect for Latin and don’t make any sense or provide any value in improving clarity and what he calls gracefulness of writing. I don’t have any quarrel with that.

I enjoyed this book, but I found myself several times bothered as Pinker both gave advice on how to write well (or how to avoid writing badly) and at the same time set forth a classification of writing theory. Because I was mainly interested in the advice, I found the theoretical material tedious. I like to think I manage creating good sentences and a conversation with a reader intuitively, and so have never felt the need to run grammar like algebra in my brain. Many people would no doubt say I’d benefit from doing that, but I’ve come to believe that there are sometimes advantages to being too old for change, and I think this is one situation where that might just be true.

Dr. Pinker is pleased to tell us so we don’t think he’s a wild and woolly descriptivist that he is the chair of the usage panel of the “American Heritage Dictionary”. The panel comprises 200 writers and other related academics, who are regularly polled on a variety of usage and grammar issues. Changes in the majority opinions over time are followed. In fact Pinker’s idea of “graceful writing” is writing that meets the earlier criteria (classic style, not overly technical, good sentence structure etc.) but also uses the language in the way a majority of educated literate people who have paid attention to serious reading and writing over the years (the panel, IE) would use it. In the end we are being told we should judge good writing by how it feels, but also (properly or not I worry over) how it feels to certain people.

I think this educated consensus approach is really interesting (coming pretty much from nobody but Americans), but it won’t surprise anybody familiar with my attitude that I feel the panel would avoid a terrible assumed but questionable chauvinism if there were a few people from the UK, Canada, or Australia involved. The only mention of the Oxford English Dictionary in Sense of Style is peripheral reference to its etymology content. This could be construed as an American improvement of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Thanks, but no. The US may have dominated technology and geopolitics in the 20th century, but in respect of the English language I doubt history will record it having eclipsed England. English, slowly giving way to the new avatar languages of China, is still fundamentally English, as it shares its gathering obscurity with that of God’s country.

The only other negative thing I can say about the experience of reading this book for me was a whiff of science-ism, similar to the kind of thing I sensed in Gigerenzer’s book Gut Feelings. So powerful is the hegemony of science-as-reductionism now that a bright and recognized authority on a great ineffable subject like language or culture can’t resist making his enterprise look disjunctive. He seems to need to make sure we understand that he’s fundamentally trying to pick things apart to see how they work. Please take a look at my review on Denis Noble’s Dance to the Tune of Life for an “unscientific” scientist’s take on this issue.

We will have to see whether we manage to get back to respect for our imaginations before that kind of attitude finally strangles all the wonder in the world. But if you’re interested in writing and philosophy of language, you could do worse than read this one.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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