Steven Pinker – The Sense of Style (a review)

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (pic:mosiacscience.com)

Words. Communication. Style
I saw this book in a book sale a while ago and knew I’d enjoy it. Steven Pinker is a charming, wild-haired Psychology Professor at Harvard, a cognitive scientist with a passion for words. He’s written an informal yet rigorous writer’s guidebook in which he debunks both the grammatical pedant and the pretentious academic, and pleads for an easy  ‘classic style’. He acknowledges that changes are happening, that the English-speaking world seems to have become less formal. He’s not pushing for plain English (although that movement has done much good) but acknowledges the real need for clarity, grace, and coherence in our writing. Just good well-designed writing style. ‘Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.’

There’s plenty of advice on sentence construction, grammar and punctuation, all of which is given in a disarmingly conversational style and with much humour. The humour makes the medicine go down easily: The compulsion of writers to ‘call a spade successively a garden implement and an earth-turning tool’ is just silly.

At the end of the book there’s a large section devoted to the technical problems you’ve always wondered about (and even that is very interesting). 

I was continually pleased with his critique of the pretentious use of latin words which tend to make us sound clever but often don’t help us communicate clearly. His mockery of business-speak is both welcome and satisfyingly merciless, and he emphasises the importance of being more aware of how we are coming across, rather than how we think we’re coming across. That’s a key issue for every preacher, and every writer. Very helpful.

So, if you’re keen to improve your writing skills this would be worth buying (even at full price). Here are some juicy quotes for fun:

  • Dickens describes a man “with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of somebody else.”
  • The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like -ance, -ment, -ation, or -ing. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement. The writing scholar Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion. They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.
  • A writer who explains technical terms can multiply her readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk.
  • if your intuitions about who and whom are squishy, insert he or him in the gap instead
  • and ‘Shakespeare and his contemporaries frequently used who where the rules would call for whom and vide versa.

Some thoughts on the so-called multiverse
My only regret regarding this excellent book is that Pinker inserts his own belief bias into what otherwise would be an objective treatment of language. But then, why shouldn’t an author subtly slip his own bias into his own book? It’s not so much the commendation of Richard Dawkins (the quotation is indeed an excellent piece of writing), but the addition of an unexpected segment on the multiverse. If you’re not familiar with the idea of the multiverse it is a fantastical idea which is offered as an explanation of why Earth is so uncannily suited to life. And unless you’re in a very generous mood it merely presents itself as a rather opportunistic Design Avoidance Mechanism. Christians believe God created the universe and the life that exists within it. Cosmologists, whatever their personal belief, have spoken with awe of the incredibly finely tuned universe, of the balance of multiple constants in nature without which life wouldn’t be possible. These variables are so precise, and so stable, that it’s almost beyond belief that there isn’t an intelligent mind behind it all: the presumption of Darwinian-style unguided evolution doesn’t seem to fit the evidence. It’s all too precise to just have happened. So an unprovable and unfalsifiable idea is suggested that maybe there are millions, even trillions, of universes (a multi-verse). If there were then it might be possible that amongst all those universes just one might turn out by chance to have exactly the right conditions to sustain life. And it just so happens that that’s the one we’re in. In Pinker’s defence, after demonstrating the writer’s skill in explaining this idea he does, a couple of pages later, mention that the author points out that the idea is not yet proven (in fact there is, of course, absolutely no evidence for it). But it’s a convenient Design Avoidance Mechanism. One does sometimes feel that by the appeal to millions and millions of years for the evolutionary magic to work, and now the appeal to trillions and trillions of unseen universes for the context in which that magic could work, that we may be just blending fact with fiction, like in all the best magic stories. 

Having said that, it’s not something that hindered my enjoyment of the book, or that restrains my warm recommendation of it.

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style, Penguin Books.

©2019 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

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