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

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. . . .

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