Review of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
by Steven Pinker
I thought I would balance out my recent mathematical non-fiction read with a non-fiction read about the English language. Not only did I have one gathering dust on my to-read shelf for years, but it’s one that is just as technical and interested in education as The Math(s) Fix was. So, of course, it took me longer to read too. Also, I was apprehensive regarding Steven Pinker (more on that at the end of the review). Nevertheless, while I wouldn’t say that I’m going to come back to The Sense of Style again and again, I’ll grudgingly admit that Pinker has done an adequate job summarizing the challenges of writing English. He also lays out some sensible guidelines and ways to think about writing English that move us beyond unproductive attempts to codify strict “rules” for a language that has never met a rule it didn’t like to break.
Pinker’s prologue and first chapter discuss what it means to “write well.” He tackles the long history, to which he contributes with this volume, of style guides for the English language. He provides specific examples of what he considers good writing, breaking them down to point out exactly which elements and decisions make the examples work. I’m an English teacher, and I teach high school to adults. A great deal of my time involves helping my students with their grammar, especially students taking the literacy course they must pass to finish their diploma. While grammar is important, many of my students get tunnel vision. They don’t realize that there is a whole universe of writing skills beyond good spelling, punctuation, and word choice. So I appreciate that Pinker begins with a more macro-level view of style before drilling down into the mechanics of syntax and semantics in later chapters.
That being said, Pinker’s background as a cognitive scientist is on full display here. He approaches linguistics from a technical and cognitive view: how does the human brain parse language? There are moments in this book where he might lose you or bore you. Pinker strives to affect a kind of down-to-earth voice. He frequently references somewhat nerdy comics (no memes, alas) to back up his arguments or illustrate a point. Nevertheless, this is not a “cool” book about grammar and style, and maybe that’s my fault for wanting it to be something it’s not. But I’m reading this and thinking, there’s some good stuff in here, but I could never show this to my students. Or even to my best friend, who recently completed her PhD. after a lot of assistance from me in the revision and editing department—she says her next goal is to improve her writing skills. The Sense of Style has useful tidbits for her, but taken as a whole it would be overwhelming
The final chapter exemplifies this: it is a survey of grammar rules. Pinker debunks the idea of descriptivism versus prescriptivism, then goes on to look at different rules we often believe are correct and tell us if we are correct in thinking they are correct. (Clear?) It’s useful information, yet it is literally encyclopedic in style and not the way I wanted to conclude a volume about writing English. I skimmed most of it.
The Sense of Style is detailed, rich in thought, and full of interesting facts and ideas. I’m glad to have read it. I’m just not sure exactly to whom I’d want to recommend this except other extreme English language nerds like me! This is not for a general audience.
Ok, now to dish: Steven Pinker has made numerous comments about sex differences in brains (just search on Twitter, and if you want to read more about that and its debunking, I highly recommend Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine), and I’m not about supporting people who support gender essentialist science. Nevertheless, I had already bought this book, and to be fair, Pinker doesn’t engage in any of that nonsense here at least. I’m not going out of my way to buy more books by Pinker, however.