The Sense of Style (2014) by Steven Pinker & the Importance of Precise Language

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Sense of Style (2014) by Steven Pinker offers very little, if anything, to the wealth of knowledge that came before in the (much better written and more concise) books On Writing Well (Zinsser, 1976), Style: The Art of Writing Well (F.L. Lucas, 1955), The Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 1918), On the Art of Writing (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1916), and What is Art? (Leo Tolstoy, 1899), to name a few.

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On page one in the Prologue, Pinker pays tribute to Strunk and White (you might as well just read The Elements of Style (any edition will suffice) and master the advice in this classic style guide, which is under 100 pages; Pinker’s book, which also includes a Glossary, is 318 pages long).

elements of style

Unlike hundreds of other writers and scholars, Pinker does correctly attribute (the oft-misattributed phrase) “Murder your darlings” to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch found in On the Art of Writing.

murder darlings quote

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Pinker, however, states in his references on page 320 that Quiller-Couch’s lectures were in 1916 when, in fact, Quiller-Couch’s lectures were performed at Cambridge from 1913-1914 and collected and published as a book two years later. In other words, just read the book On the Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch).

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Pinker’s Rule No. 1: “Look Things Up”

Pinker also steals (or lifts and borrows as his own) from Tolstoy the three reasons for style (the foundation for the book). Pinker argues his three reasons for style include clarity, trust, and beauty (pgs 8-9). Tolstoy argues that art (in the form of style) consists of clarity, integrity (in the form of a trusting bond between artist and the world), and beauty. Sound familiar? (In other words, just read Tolstoy’s What is Art?)

what is art

Regardless, Pinker is right when he exclaims: “Good writing is understood with the mind’s eye” (p 16).

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One thing of special note is Pinker’s rather short but interesting consideration for prescriptivism and descriptivism (pgs 188-189) as he defines the two intellectual camps:

“Prescriptivists: they prescribed correct usage. Prescriptivists uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilization, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism, and the dumbing down of literate culture” (p 188). [Note: Pinker should have written: “they prescribe” and not “they prescribed” because the following sentences are in present tense (not past tense) and, also, in the parallel sentence for Descriptivists he writes “they describe.”]

“Descriptivists: they describe how language actually is used rather than prescribing how it ought to be used. Descriptivists believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place” (p 189).

Later, when we take a closer look at Madeleine Thien’s book Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016), we will become “prescriptivists” and argue why language does matter for clarity, which is one of the founding principles of style.

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But first let’s take one of Pinker’s examples which involves the former president of the United States Barack Obama and the importance and impact language has in the real world:

“The split-verb superstition can even lead to a crisis of governance. During the 2009 presidential inauguration, Chief Justice John Roberts, a famous stickler for grammar, could not bring himself to have Barack Obama ‘solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States.’ Abandoning his strict constructionism, Roberts unilaterally amended the Constitution and had Obama ‘solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president of the United States faithfully.’ The garbled oath raised fears about whether the transfer of power had been legitimate, and so they repeated the oath verbatim, split verb and all, in a private meeting later than afternoon” (pgs 228-229).

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Likewise, when it comes to dangling modifiers (pgs 208-211), no one is immune. As we will see in the 2016-book Do Not Say We Have Nothing, dangling modifiers are quite common even in the best forms of literature (however, not a single dangling modifier could be found in the 2015-book His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, who is a native English speaker; both books, however, were shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize). Why is that?

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Pinker attempts to explain:

“Danglers are extremely common, not just in deadline-pressured journalism but in the works of distinguished authors. Considering how often these forms turn up in edited prose and how readily they are accepted even by careful readers, two conclusions are possible: either dangling modifiers are a particularly insidious grammatical error for which writers must develop sensitive radar, or they are not grammatical errors at all. (Did you notice the dangler in the sentence before last?)

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“The second conclusion is the right one: some dangling modifiers should be avoided, but they are not grammatical errors. The problem with dangling modifiers is that their subjects are inherently ambiguous and sometimes a sentence will inadvertently attract a reader to the wrong choice” (p 210).

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Now let’s turn to Madeleine Thien’s 2016-book Do Not Say We Have Nothing and illustrate to the common reader how such a celebrated book could be filled with some elementary grammar mistakes, primarily the dangling modifier. (Also note: the book’s narrator grew up in Canada and her native language is English; so there can be no excuses regarding authenticity of language if the character’s primary language is English. What is clear is that the author simply does not fully understand how to avoid a dangling modifier to seek greater clarity in the sentences she is composing.)

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Some examples of clarity problems in language in Do Not Say We Have Nothing:

1.

Original: “When she opened her eyes, she looked out and saw Yiwen’s mother sitting in the courtyard, washing clothes” (p 370).

Problem: A courtyard cannot wash clothes (“courtyard, washing clothes”).

Solution: When she opened her eyes, she looked out and saw Yiwen’s mother sitting and washing clothes in the courtyard.

2.

Original: “Ai-ming burst into the apartment, elated” (p 376).

Problem: An apartment cannot be elated (“apartment, elated”).

Solution: Ai-ming, elated, burst into the apartment.

3.

Original: “Ling caught a glimpse of another girl darting down the alleyway, a flash of neon colour” (p 376).

Problem: “Another girl” is the “flash of neon colour” and not the alleyway (“alleyway, a flash of neon colour”).

Solution: Ling caught a glimpse of another girl darting, like a flash of neon colour, down the alleyway.

4.

Original: “Sparrow could not imagine what this scene would like [sic] through Zhuli’s eyes, at the age she would be now” (p 392).

Problem: All kinds: “the scene would like” and “eyes, at the age.”

Solution: If Zhuli were still alive, Sparrow could not imagine what this scene would look like through Zhuli’s eyes. (You could even write: “through her eyes” since the reader would know that Zhuli is female and Sparrow is male.)

5.

Original: “He didn’t answer. His [sic] picked up his brush and continued writing. The small stack of notebook [sic] beside him seemed to lift slightly, like the ribs of an accordion” (p 457).

Problem: All kinds: Foremost, an adverb shouldn’t be modified if you seek greater clarity in style (“slightly, like the ribs”).

Solution: He picked up his brush and continued writing. Beside him, in the photo, the small stack of notebooks appeared to be like the ribs of an accordion.

You get the point and there’s no need to “beat a dead horse” (a phrase which means: the point has been adequately and sufficiently proven and there’s no need to provide additional examples).

art is change

The motivating thing to remember is this: a writer can write bad (unclear) sentences and still have a celebrated book.

writing well

Pinker ends his “style guide” with some key points that should be repeated here as a reminder for all who enjoy studying language, the art of writing, and diplomacy:

“Though correct usage is well worth pursuing, we have to keep it in perspective. Not even the most irksome errors are portents of the death of the language, to say nothing of civilization…

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“And for all the vitriol brought out by matters of correct usage, they are the smallest part of good writing. They pale in importance behind coherence, classic style, and overcoming the curse of knowledge, to say nothing of standards of intellectual conscientiousness. If you really want to improve the quality of your writing, or if you want to thunder about sins in the writing of others, the principles you should worry about the most are not the ones that govern fused participles and possessive antecedents but the ones that govern critical thinking and factual diligence…

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“First, look things up… [like when Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch first held his lectures at Cambridge]

“Second, be sure your arguments are sound…

“Third, don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world…

“Fourth, beware of false dichotomies…

“Finally, arguments should be based on reasons, not people…

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“There is no dichotomy between describing how people use language and prescribing how they might use it more effectively. We can share our advice on how to write well without treating the people in need of it with contempt. We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world” (pgs 301-304).

That pretty much sums it up, for language and for dealing with people and ideas in the real world…

Compared to the great classic style guides, Pinker’s “style guide” feels like a cheap product where Pinker’s undergraduate and graduate students gathered and put together research materials and Pinker sat down and typed up, chapter by chapter, his summaries of the research into a readable book (this is a common problem among many academics: using students to do the real research while the authors of the books summarize the research and take the credit and royalties).

Ergo, the world needs more artists and fewer academics. What currently stands is an industry (in writing/publishing) with far too many professional, career-oriented academics posing as “artists” and they should be called either pseudo-artists or pseudo-writers, for that is exactly what they are.

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Point being: there are much older and better written style guides out there and you should consider these above Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which offers very little to the style guides already tested by time and providence.

Good try, but better luck next time, Pinker.

Keep reading and smiling…

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