Worth A Read: The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker


The BUZZ: A contemporary supplement to the classic Elements of Style. An intriguing scientific basis for writing rules and fundamentals by the author of The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought

The GIST: I remember fist picking up Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as an adolescent. Initially excited that it might help me look cool, I instantly became bored when I realized the style it referred to had nothing to do with clothes. As required reading in college, I appreciated its generous intent to assist any writer with the task of making sense on the page. When my dad sent me a copy of Pinker’s book recently, I wondered what more needed to be said on the topic. Turns out, a lot. It’s a new century, and our language and understanding of it has changed. Rather than jump on the whining bandwagon, scorning the decline of communication skills in our texting, tweeting youth, Pinker is hopeful. This guide is a gentle appreciation of our evolving efforts to be understood. In six chapters, he debunks many of the widely held dogmas of grammar and usage. Pinker wants us to see that language is not static, but an active, relative interaction between reader and writer. Rigid rules should be thoughtfully examined to see if they apply at each window, depending on the view.

 The WRITING: Clear and Engaging. Pinker is a renowned Harvard psycholinguistic and cognitive scientist, approaching the craft from a different angle than his adored predecessors. He boldly states that Strunk and White lacked the tools to properly analyze language. Pinker has a  full toolbox. It includes research findings from linguistic and cognitive studies that support and govern effective communication. He knows what’s easy on the brain in its efforts to comprehend black markings on white paper and lit screens, and what impedes clarity. For example, he thinks Strunk and White gave bad advice in their insistence that writers avoid the passive voice. Research shows that this approach engages the reader’s attention and memory. He believes that in writing for the page, we can ignore rules that were meant for oral tradition. I enjoyed his humorous examples of sloppy errors and their corrections, as well as useful models of good writing. There is flexibility at his keyboard, depending on what we are trying to say in certain circumstances. If his own writing is based upon the tenets in his book, we should be eager to follow them.

BUY OR BORROW: Buy. The inscription in my copy reads, ”Carolyn dear, this one belongs on your shelf next to Strunk and White.” I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Dad.

“The best words not only pinpoint an idea better than any alternative but echo it in their sound and articulation, a phenomenon called phonesthetics, the feeling of sound.”

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