From the author of the forthcoming Enlightenment Now (February 2018), a short and entertaining book on the modern art of writing well by New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker
Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care?
In The Sense of Style, the bestselling linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker answers these questions and more. Rethinking the usage guide for the twenty-first century, Pinker doesn’t carp about the decline of language or recycle pet peeves from the rulebooks of a century ago. Instead, he applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose.
In this short, cheerful, and eminently practical book, Pinker shows how writing depends on imagination, empathy, coherence, grammatical knowhow, and an ability to savor and reverse engineer the good prose of others. He replaces dogma about usage with reason and evidence, allowing writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, rather than robotically, being mindful of what they are designed to accomplish.
Filled with examples of great and gruesome prose, Pinker shows us how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right.
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Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I love style manuals. Ever since I was assigned Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in an introductory psychology course, the writing guide has been among my favorite literary genres. It’s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the craft of writing. It’s also that credible guidance on writing must itself be well written, and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice. William Strunk’s course notes on writing, which his student E. B. White turned into their famous little book, was studded with gems of self-exemplification such as “Write with nouns and verbs,” “Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end,” and best of all, his prime directive, “Omit needless words.” Many eminent stylists have applied their gifts to explaining the art, including Kingsley Amis, Jacques Barzun, Ambrose Bierce, Bill Bryson, Robert Graves, Tracy Kidder, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, F. L. Lucas, George Orwell, William Safire, and of course White himself, the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Here is the great essayist reminiscing about his teacher:
I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind? It’s all the more captivating to someone who seeks to explain these fields to a wide readership. I think about how language works so that I can best explain how language works.
But my professional acquaintance with language has led me to read the traditional manuals with a growing sense of unease. Strunk and White, for all their intuitive feel for style, had a tenuous grasp of grammar.2 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. George Orwell, in his vaunted “Politics and the English Language,” fell into the same trap when, without irony, he derided prose in which “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active.”3
Self-contradiction aside, we now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.
Style manuals that are innocent of linguistics also are crippled in dealing with the aspect of writing that evokes the most emotion: correct and incorrect usage. Many style manuals treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation. But skeptics and freethinkers who probe the history of these rules have found that they belong to an oral tradition of folklore and myth. For many reasons, manuals that are credulous about the inerrancy of the traditional rules don’t serve writers well. Although some of the rules can make prose better, many of them make it worse, and writers are better off flouting them. The rules often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect, but a skilled writer needs to keep them straight. And the orthodox stylebooks are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time. Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.
Yet the 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. Or consider this head-scratcher, concocted to explain why a writer should never use a number word with people, only with persons: “If of ‘six people’ five went away, how many people would be left? Answer: one people.” By the same logic, writers should avoid using numbers with irregular plurals such as men, children, and teeth (“If of ‘six children’ five went away . . .”).
In the last edition published in his lifetime, White did acknowledge some changes to the language, instigated by “youths” who “speak to other youths in a tongue of their own devising: they renovate the language with a wild vigor, as they would a basement apartment.” White’s condescension to these “youths” (now in their retirement years) led him to predict the passing of nerd, psyched, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky, all of which have become entrenched in the language.
The graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens come not just from an underappreciation of the fact of language change but from a lack of reflection on their own psychology. As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days.4 And so every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it:5
The common language is disappearing. It is slowly being crushed to death under the weight of verbal conglomerate, a pseudospeech at once both pretentious and feeble, that is created daily by millions of blunders and inaccuracies in grammar, syntax, idiom, metaphor, logic, and common sense. . . . In the history of modern English there is no period in which such victory over thought-in-speech has been so widespread.—1978
Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.—1961
From every college in the country goes up the cry, “Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.” Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.—1917
The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.—1889
Unless the present progress of change [is] arrested . . . there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman.—1833
Our language (I mean the English) is degenerating very fast. . . . I begin to fear that it will be impossible to check it.—1785
Complaints about the decline of language go at least as far back as the invention of the printing press. Soon after William Caxton set up the first one in England in 1478, he lamented, “And certaynly our langage now vsed veryeth ferre from what whiche was vsed and spoken when I was borne.” Indeed, moral panic about the decline of writing may be as old as writing itself:
Non Sequitur © 2011 Wiley Ink, Inc. Dist. by Universal Uclick. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
The cartoon is not much of an exaggeration. According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.6
My discomfort with the classic style manuals has convinced me that we need a writing guide for the twenty-first century. It’s not that I have the desire, to say nothing of the ability, to supplant The Elements of Style. Writers can profit by reading more than one style guide, and much of Strunk and White (as it is commonly called) is as timeless as it is charming. But much of it is not. Strunk was born in 1869, and today’s writers cannot base their craft exclusively on the advice of a man who developed his sense of style before the invention of the telephone (let alone the Internet), before the advent of modern linguistics and cognitive science, before the wave of informalization that swept the world in the second half of the twentieth century.
A manual for the new millennium cannot just perpetuate the diktats of earlier manuals. Today’s writers are infused by the spirit of scientific skepticism and the ethos of questioning authority. They should not be satisfied with “That’s the way it’s done” or “Because I said so,” and they deserve not to be patronized at any age. They rightly expect reasons for any advice that is foisted upon them.
Today we can provide the reasons. We have an understanding of grammatical phenomena which goes well beyond the traditional taxonomies based on crude analogies with Latin. We have a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading: the waxing and waning of memory load as readers comprehend a passage, the incrementing of their knowledge as they come to grasp its meaning, the blind alleys that can lead them astray. We have a body of history and criticism which can distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings. 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.
“The sense of style” has a double meaning. The word sense, as in “the sense of sight” and “a sense of humor,” can refer to a faculty of mind, in this case the faculties of comprehension that resonate to a well-crafted sentence. It can also refer to “good sense” as opposed to “nonsense,” in this case the ability to discriminate between the principles that improve the quality of prose and the superstitions, fetishes, shibboleths, and initiation ordeals that have been passed down in the traditions of usage.
The Sense of Style is not a reference manual in which you can find the answer to every question about hyphenation and capitalization. Nor is it a remedial guide for badly educated students who have yet to master the mechanics of a sentence. Like the classic guides, it is designed for people who know how to write and want to write better. This includes students who hope to improve the quality of their papers, aspiring critics and journalists who want to start a blog or column or series of reviews, and professionals who seek a cure for their academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, medicalese, or officialese. The book is also written for readers who seek no help in writing but are interested in letters and literature and curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.
My focus is on nonfiction, particularly genres that put a premium on clarity and coherence. But unlike the authors of the classic guides, I don’t equate these virtues with plain words, austere expression, and formal style.7 You can write with clarity and with flair, too. And though the emphasis is on nonfiction, the explanations should be useful to fiction writers as well, because many principles of style apply whether the world being written about is real or imaginary. I like to think they might also be helpful to poets, orators, and other creative wordsmiths, who need to know the canons of pedestrian prose to flout them for rhetorical effect.
People often ask me whether anyone today even cares about style. The English language, they say, faces a new threat in the rise of the Internet, with its texting and tweeting, its email and chatrooms. Surely the craft of written expression has declined since the days before smartphones and the Web. You remember those days, don’t you? Back in the 1980s, when teenagers spoke in fluent paragraphs, bureaucrats wrote in plain English, and every academic paper was a masterpiece in the art of the essay? (Or was it the 1970s?) The problem with the Internet-is-making-us-illiterate theory, of course, is that bad prose has burdened readers in every era. Professor Strunk tried to do something about it in 1918, when young Elwyn White was a student in his English class at Cornell.
What today’s doomsayers fail to notice is that the very trends they deplore consist in oral media—radio, telephones, and television—giving way to written ones. Not so long ago it was radio and television that were said to be ruining the language. More than ever before, the currency of our social and cultural lives is the written word. And no, not all of it is the semiliterate ranting of Internet trolls. A little surfing will show that many Internet users value language that is clear, grammatical, and competently spelled and punctuated, not just in printed books and legacy media but in e-zines, blogs, Wikipedia entries, consumer reviews, and even a fair proportion of email. Surveys have shown that college students are writing more than their counterparts in earlier generations did, and that they make no more errors per page of writing.8 And contrary to an urban legend, they do not sprinkle their papers with smileys and instant-messaging abbreviations like IMHO and L8TR, any more than previous generations forgot how to use prepositions and articles out of the habit of omitting them from their telegrams. Members of the Internet generation, like all language users, fit their phrasing to the setting and audience, and have a good sense of what is appropriate in formal writing.
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