I went to a grammar school. Which naturally means I am quite bad at doing grammar. I can even mangle the very word grammar, replacing the last a with e. I have always loved playing with words, but the constraints that formal education demands have always felt too restrictive. Why can’t I spell crunnnch with three n’s? That’s how it sounds! And why can’t I start a sentence with and?
In The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century Steven Pinker tries to sort out what we truly know about good writing. While much of our common wisdom is wise, there is much that you and I heard from our teachers which should be discarded.
Across 300 easily read pages, and six distinct chapters, Pinker wanders through how we think in and through English and how to use it more effectively. Most importantly, he shows that while it makes sense to choose some options over others, it is convention and convenience that should guide us. The human mind shapes particular choices to be more effective, but it is human society which ultimately determines the merits of our language.
This refreshing approach allows Pinker to defend some old wisdom while pulling apart others. He encourages infinitives to be split and mounts a convincing defence of the humble ‘the’ through its power to offer a sentence breathing space. Likewise, passive voice, which research has shown to aid a reader’s memory is also offered renewed praise.
This is where Pinker, a psychologist and linguist from Harvard shines as the author. How we think and the way language shapes and is shaped by thought have always been central to his work. Pinker shows time and again an interest not just in words as words, or thoughts as thoughts, but how they are connected.
His scientist’s eye for cognition and language is also smoothed by the clear sense of play which infuses the book. It starts with the book’s title. Having a sense of style is important, but there is sense in having a style that aids communicate. The frequent use of humour in the form of classic errors “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog” break up the analysis and let the mind rest.
Early on in the book Pinker implies that a reader’s inability to follow is the writer’s fault. So let me attribute two issues which, with his injunction in hand, I can clearly lay at the foot of the Harvard-professor-as-writer, rather than this Canberra-lecturer-as-reader.
For those who have not followed some of his earlier work, the use of tree strings can seem a complication without much contribution. I have a vague memory of them from his earlier works like The Language Instinct but still found them difficult to learn from. Maybe more visual readers will gain more than I did. Still it is remarkable that encountering these strings was about the only time I had to ask myself ‘Do I really understand this’.
The other concern I had was that after 187 delightful pages of analysis and discussion, the book switches gear to become a list of 100 common problems and rules. While Pinker continues to rebel against the forces of pedantry, the change is still jarring. It almost felt like a different book, as if I’d been tricked into reading a style manual.
The advantage of this easy to look up section however is that I’ll now leave a copy of The Sense of Style close to my desk for future reference. Rather than sending it back to the shelves to gather dust, the book has gained a second life beyond the reading. In turn this ensures the book will be far more visible to those I work with, which is a subtle but genius act of marketing by the author if intended.
I should end by noting it has been more challenging than usual to pull this review together. Not because I have difficulty organising my thoughts about the text, but because I was much more (greater? further?) self-conscious about the quality of my writing. The first page of “The Sense of Style” says ‘credible guidance on writing must itself be well written’. While Pinkers’ work easily meets this test, does this also apply to those who are claiming to have read it?
To write badly so soon after digesting it would suggest a lack of attention and care on my part. If I’m reviewing a book of history or politics, then displaying a mastery of the dates and names I’ve encountered within its pages takes next to no effort on my part. But displaying a mastery of language after reading about good writing?
So in the tradition of cautious writers everywhere let me acknowledge the help Pinker has tried to provide my penmanship through his excellent little book, recommend you also seek out his help, and declare him free of any responsibility for the errors in this review and any future ones to come.