Book review: The Sense of Style

We humans have been speaking for a lot longer than we’ve been writing, which is why the former comes to us so much more naturally. When we write, explains Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, the physical and temporal distance between us and our audience means it’s impossible to monitor their body language and adjust how we’re communicating to keep them engaged. That distance also makes it easy for us to lose sight of our audience entirely.

But if we aspire to what literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner called classic style, we can make our writing as effortless to read as holding a conversation. “The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world,” says Pinker. “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.” (pp. 28–29)

Keeping this metaphor in mind can help you steer clear of the hallmarks of stuffy prose: the self-conscious hedging, the tedious signposting, the metadiscourse, as well as nominalizations (Pinker borrows Helen Sword’s term, “zombie nouns”) and excessive use of passive voice. Yet, it also highlights why some of those devices can be useful. The passive, for example, can help steer your reader’s attention toward the receiver of an action, if that’s where you’d like her to look, and a nominalization can be an economical way to refer to a topic you’ve just introduced. As Pinker says:

The advice to bring zombie nouns back to life as verbs and to convert passives into actives is ubiquitous in style guides and plain language laws… But it’s good advice only when a writer or editor understands why it’s being offered. No English construction could have survived in the language for a millennium and a half unless it had continued to serve some purpose, and that includes passives and nominalizations. They may be overused, and often they are badly used, but that does not mean they should not be used at all. (p. 55)

Pinker encourages writers (and editors, by extension) to be discerning and to think critically about communicative effect, which is what sets The Sense of Style apart from other writing guides. It is not just a list of dos and don’ts, although the final chapter, “Telling right from wrong,” does cover which so-called rules you can safely ignore (perhaps grammatical rules that careful writers and speakers regularly break are not rules at all) and which you should probably heed. The motivation for following these rules, though, should not be the self-righteousness of being correct but the desire to be as clear as possible without irritating your readers—some of whom may have been taught to live by the sticklers’ and pedants’ old-school rules. Another of this book’s distinguishing features is that it grounds its advice on evidence, not just an intuitive sense of what reads well—as useful as that intuition may be for strong writers and editors. Pinker offers us psycholinguistic insight into why separating a subject from its predicate makes a sentence harder to read and why negative statements take longer to process than positive ones. It seems the common trait of stylistic infelicities is that they all slow a reader down.

The source of a lot of bad writing, says Pinker, is what he calls the curse of knowledge: forgetting that our readers don’t know exactly what we do. When we fail to give enough background or properly define a term, we risk confusing the reader. Similarly, if, when moving from one sentence to the next, we don’t show how the two are related semantically, we can leave the reader stranded. The strongest writers, says Pinker, are those that have mastered connectives: coordinators and subordinators (what we’ve traditionally called conjunctions), as well as phrases like “in contrast,” and “on the other hand.”

Pinker’s terminology may differ a bit from what many of us learned in school, and for good reason. When we were taught that “Adam’s” in “Adam’s apple” is an adjective, we conflated grammatical category (genitive noun) with grammatical function (determiner). It’s not that “ice” in “ice cream” has magically turned from noun to adjective but that nouns may function as modifiers. To great effect, Pinker uses the “sentence as tree” metaphor, using tree diagrams, ubiquitous in linguistics, to show how a sentence can be parsed. English, he explains, is a right-branching language: we expect new information to be added on as we move from the beginning of a sentence to the end. Too many left branches, as in a noun string, where we have to store a bunch of modifiers before we get to the thing being modified, gobbles up our working memory. We don’t have to create tree diagrams to write effective sentences, but they are another tool in our toolkit that we can reach for to help us untangle unwieldy prose.

Pinker covers an enormous swath of territory in this eminently sensible guide, from diction to syntax to paragraph structure and beyond, and I can’t even begin to do it justice in this short review. Editors will find The Sense of Style illuminating, hilarious, and (for all but the most pedantic sticklers) affirming. Pinker’s guidance resonates with my own approach to editing (although, counter to his advice, I’ll stay away from using “which” in a restrictive sense—for now), and it’s a refreshing change from the prescriptivist writing guides that don’t account for language change or register. I delighted in reading about such topics as how punctuation restores some of the prosody of spoken language—intonation, emphasis, pauses—and how the demise of “whom” and the subjunctive mood has been exaggerated. (The book, incidentally, also has a great index, which extends its life from an effervescent read to what will undoubtedly be a much-consulted reference.)

“Credible guidance on writing must itself be well written,” says Pinker in the prologue, “and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice.” (p. 1) This book is no exception. The prose in The Sense of Style is ambrosia, and I guzzled it greedily.

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