About the Reviews | New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects | Personal Choice

Steven Pinker

The Sense of Style

The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
I felt immediately well-disposed towards Pinker's book when I found, on his first page, commendation of two of my favourite writers on style, Robert Graves and F.L. Lucas. And as I went on reading I found a lot that seemed to me to be spot on, particularly in the final chapter. I'll come back to that later, but first I need to say something of what largely passed me by.

"Style" is a notoriously difficult term to define, but in this case it has a large component of grammar. And Pinker's approach to grammar is explicitly based on The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002). I confess I'd never heard of this monumental scholarly work of almost 2000 pages, which is clearly a major dereliction on my part, because it's recognised to be of the first importance. "It uses modern linguistics to provide a systematic analysis of virtually every grammatical construction in English."

"Modern linguistics" sounds rather intimidating, and with good reason; it isn't grammar as I've known it up to now. But at least Pinker gave me fair warning of what to expect.

If you are over sixty or went to a private school, you may have noticed that this syntactic machinery differs in certain ways from what you remember from Miss Thistlebottom's classroom. Modern grammatical theories … distinguish grammatical categories like noun and verb from grammatical functions like subject, object, head, and modifier. And they distinguish both of these from semantic categories and roles like action, physical object, possessor, doer, and done-to, which refer to what the referents of the words are doing in the world. Traditional grammars tend to run the three concepts together.
This passage comes in Chapter 4 (there are only six in the book), which expounds Pinker's favoured grammatical scheme with the help of numerous diagrams, of which this is an example.
Structural diagram
I have to admit that I merely skimmed all this, an omission which I'm sure Pinker would not condone. Yet is it necessary to take a potted course in modern linguistics in order to write well?

I'm a Miss Thistlebottom's graduate on both of Pinker's criteria. While I recognise the shortcomings of the Latin-based English grammar I learned at school, I think that after a lifetime of writing I have acquired a serviceable grasp of sentence structure and don't need to invest time and effort in learning a new way of understanding what I'm already doing. Perhaps I'm complacent in saying this, but at least I found no difficulty in solving the linguistic conundrums that Pinker poses to his reader in the course of the book, so he and I seem to have arrived at much the same destination via our different routes.

This doesn't mean I think the book is no use to writers. Pinker has plenty of interesting things to say that don't depend on his grammatical scheme. In fact, Chapter 3, "The Curse of Knowledge", has nothing to do with grammar and is about content—what you say rather than how you say it. Pinker's point is that too many writers assume readers to have the same specialised knowledge of a subject as they do.

I'm not sure that this is always an easy trap to avoid. Society is more fragmented now than it was in the past, and "common knowledge" is more nebulous than it once was. Also, what you write may be read by people with different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, which is an additional potential source of confusion. In fact, as a British reader I found myself occasionally not knowing what Pinker meant by certain words, such as maven (although I guessed that from the context).

The most interesting part of the book for me was Chapter 6, "Telling Right from Wrong", which provides Pinker's opinions on contentious questions of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation. Some linguistic experts tell us that anything goes—there are no rules and no native speaker of a language can make a mistake. Pinker doesn't go that far but he does insist that many of the so-called rules that writers are exhorted to obey have no foundation in grammar, logic, or precedent.

Experts (not to be confused with the purists, who are often ignoramuses) call these phony rules fetishes, folklore, hobgoblins, superstitions, shibboleths, or (my favourite) bubbe meises, Yiddish for "grandmother's tales".
One example of a baseless "rule" is the need to avoid split infinitives. This one has already been pretty effectively debunked by others, and by now it's probably safe to ignore it without risking that your reader will think you have done so from ignorance. The status of others is more debatable, but Pinker admits that some prescriptive rules are followed by all good writers. To some extent it's a matter of context: whether or not a rule should be followed sometimes depends on how formal a piece of writing is intended to be. For example avoiding putting a preposition at the end of a sentence is probably undesirable in formal writing but may appear pretentious or pompous elsewhere.

I liked Pinker's endorsement of they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun to solve the constantly-recurring problem of avoiding sexist language, as exemplified by President Obama in 2003: "No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like.". I've repeatedly found myself driven to this expedient but always felt slightly anxious about its supposed lack of grammatical propriety. But it's becoming increasingly acceptable, at least outside formal writing, and it has many historical precedents. "The main danger in using [it] is that a more-grammatically-purist-than-thou reader may falsely accuse you of making an error. If they do, tell then that Jane Austen and I think it's fine."

Pinker points out the obvious grammatical error in between you and I. He identifies this as an example of what he calls hypercorrection. I was grateful for this useful term, because I've often noticed the phenomenon but didn't know what to call it. The error seems to arise because children are reproved for saying things like "Me and Amanda went to the cinema" and are told it should be "Amanda and I". They then generalise the correction inappropriately to infer that and must always be followed by a nominative pronoun.

Characteristically, however, Pinker has second thoughts. These case errors seem manifestly wrong, yet they are surprisingly common in the speech and sometimes even the writing of educated people. (I noticed several examples of it recently in Paddy Ashdown's autobiography.) Pinker thinks this indicates that there is more to it than first appears. "The Cambridge Grammar suggests that in contemporary English many speakers have settled on a rule that allows a nominative pronoun like I or he after and."

I found Chapter 6 to be the best part of the book, even though Pinker's explanations of the topics he discusses make use of the modern linguistic terminology I'd mostly skipped earlier. It's worth buying the book for Chapter 6 alone. Although I'm probably further towards the purist end of the spectrum than Pinker, I had few disagreements with him and I may on reflection modify my stance on some of them (not including between you and I) in the future.

Whether one agrees with all Pinker's views or not, at least he cares about the language. But even here he argues for moderation in how firmly we advocate our opinions.

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 reason 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.
To which I would add a final and rather sobering thought, this time from F.L. Lucas. The most important determinant of how well we write is not technique, it's character, and this inevitably comes through even if we try to conceal it.
Those who publish make themselves public in more ways than they sometimes realize. Authors may sell their books but they give themselves away.


%T The Sense of Style
%S The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
%A Pinker, Steven
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2015
%G ISBN 978-0-241-95771-4
%P viii+359pp _
%P viii+359pp
%K language
%O paperback: glossary, notes, references, index

About the Reviews | New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects | Personal Choice