Steven Pinker has written a new and jaunty style guideSteven Pinker on grammar rules it’s OK to break
Professor Steven Pinker
A witty and personable guide … Steven Pinker. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex
—If you want to start an argument online, make an assertion about English usage. “Apostrophes are on their way out”, or “People who misuse apostrophes deserve to be guillotined”. For extra spice, add a dash of what’s commonly considered solecism: “People who fret about apostrophes are, like, literally the worst thing in the world.”
This gambit, of course, also works beyond cyberspace. On the page, and in conversation, we frequently observe that one person’s idea of linguistic rectitude is another’s of insufferable fussiness. Most of us have strong views about how best to use language; where the more intricate details are concerned, those views are often an amalgam of aesthetic taste, ingrained social prejudice, popular myth and a form of reasoning that we insist is logic though it may smell like something else.
In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker cheerfully launches himself on to this terrain. The Harvard psychology professor is a rigorous thinker whose previous books, including The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought, have been distinguished by a flair for making highly technical subjects seem not just accessible but positively jaunty. Now his distaste for the deathly edicts that glut most current volumes on literary style has led him to create what he calls “a writing guide for the 21st century”. The book has two parts: in the first, Pinker identifies the techniques that make prose compelling and the bad habits that can make it soggy, and in the second he focuses on contentious points of usage, of the sort addressed by the American humorist Calvin Trillin’s quip: “‘Whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.”
Pinker’s chosen field is crowded. There are plenty of books packed with trenchant ideas about the craft of writing prose: I know people who swear by William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Joseph Williams’s Style or Stephen King’s On Writing. But the big beasts are manuals of an altogether more prescriptive nature. In Britain, a special reverence has long been reserved for Henry Watson Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926), which urges writers to be “direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid”.
In America, the most influential book of this kind is The Elements of Style. Written in 1918 by William Strunk, it was revised in the 1950s by his former pupil EB White – hence the practice of calling it “Strunk and White”. This slim volume abounds with precepts that are superficially pleasing but misguided and restrictive. The simplistic rule “Use the active voice”, echoed by George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, has proved especially tenacious. Yet while it’s true that the passive voice can be used in all manner of clunky or slippery ways, anyone who routinely demonises the passive is overlooking its potential as an aid to rhythm or emphasis.
The history of ideas about style doesn’t detain Pinker for long, and he professes himself unable to supplant Strunk and White, but he is explicit about wanting to improve on the eccentricity and inconsistency of The Elements of Style. He points out that Strunk was born in 1869; in the digital age, we may balk at taking instruction from someone who formed his doctrine of English usage before the invention of the telephone.
What’s more, there are many supposedly modern guides to good writing that are far less cogent than The Elements of the Style. Their authors are the sort of people who exult in claiming that the true sense of a particular word (“presently” as a synonym for “soon”) is being driven out by a debased alternative (“presently” as a synonym for “now”). More frustratingly, they trumpet the importance of preventing language change with a vehemence that makes measured discussion impossible. At their most belligerent, they will boycott a supermarket where the sign at the express checkout reads “Ten items or less”, and will allege that the failure to distinguish between “less” and “fewer” is a symptom of grave social decline.
Pinker scrutinises these pedants’ peeves. With a mixture of careful argument and finely tuned derision, he debunks a lot of creaky old hokum about the heinousness of splitting an infinitive and why you should write “Karen is smarter than I” rather than “Karen is smarter than me”. Yet he is hardly a member of the “Anything goes” school, and he lays down plenty of prescriptions about both the general character of well-wrought prose and its minutiae, even going so far as to characterise his book as “several hundred pages in which I am bossing you around”.
The directions rarely feel bossy. Pinker is a witty and personable guide, who just occasionally lapses into banality, as when he points out that you are likely to notice ways to improve your prose if you read it aloud or show a draft to a friend. Mostly, he handles even workaday matters with panache. A perennial strength of his writing is the shrewdly chosen example. As an instance of an ambiguous news headline he offers “Manufacturing data helps invigorate Wall Street”, and his samples of risibly inept metaphor include “No one has yet invented a condom that will knock people’s socks off”. He also grasps the need to engage the interest of readers for whom the word “wireless” certainly doesn’t call to mind a radio, though not everyone will cherish his descriptions of language as “a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers” and grammar as “the original sharing app”.
He is at his most persuasive when he provides examples of what he considers especially skilful writing and anatomises its virtues. “A coherent text is a designed object,” he argues, and he shows contemporary writers – such as the New York Times obituarist Margalit Fox – in the act of accommodating the different demands of clarity, accuracy, concision, tone and cadence. He also provides telling examples of the failure to balance these demands: in the opaque pronouncements of scholars, the oppressive narcissism of journalists and the soullessness of corporate jive. In many cases the guilty parties are so immersed in a subject that they lose sight of its concrete underpinnings and can relate to it only in abstract terms.
Discussing this error of perspective, Pinker draws on his expertise in cognitive psychology, explaining the concept of functional fixedness – essentially the principle that familiarity with an object (or subject) locks us into a narrow understanding of how it can be used (or presented). While this isn’t the only time The Sense of Style profits from Pinker’s academic research, the book could do with a little more scientific heft. Pinker’s manner is mostly reasonable rather than revelatory. Yet this is a thoughtful guide, tough-minded and up to date, for people who think they can write well but are willing to believe that they could write better.
The Sense of Style review – lessons in how to write | GoodShit.