Prose for the people
By Rachel Hadas
September 8, 2014
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker, Viking, 359 pp., $27.95
“You can write with clarity and with flair, too,” writes Steven Pinker in his useful and delightful new book, The Sense of Style. Pinker should know. His clarity and flair illuminate every page of what the publisher calls “this short, cheerful, and eminently practical book.” The book isn’t notably short; when the index is added (I’ve been reading uncorrected proofs), it will be longer by a very welcome 21 pages. One silver lining: the lack of an index has prevented me from quoting all the especially helpful or funny passages I kept dog-earing. Also, the presence of the index, when it’s added, should help to bear out that “eminently practical.”
Cheerful The Sense of Style certainly is, and not only because it’s full of funny and apposite quotations from grammar experts ranging from Groucho Marx to Dave Barry to Boris and Natasha, as well as well-chosen cartoons. Pinker’s style, or maybe I should say tone, is cheerful in itself: brisk without bullying, sensible without pedantry, authoritative without pomposity. You sense what a wonderful teacher he must be: brimming over with information, generous with examples, disarmingly amusing.
Indeed, a recurrent theme of The Sense of Style is that the rigidity and pedantry of many style manuals and of the people who wrote them no longer serve us well, to put it mildly:
Strunk [of William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s Elements of Style] 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.
Pinker gives us permission to push back against prescriptive rules, many of which “originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries. … Experts on usage (not to be confused with the purists, who are often ignoramuses) call these phony rules fetishes, folklore, hobgoblins, superstitions, shibboleths, or (my favorite) bubbe meises, Yiddish for ‘grandmothers’ tales.’ ”
Later in the chapter titled “Telling Right from Wrong,” in which he mentions bubbe meises, Pinker presents an extremely useful table whose categories are “Word,” “Only Sense Allowed by Purists,” “Sense Commonly Used,” and “Comment”: “With the backing of data from the AHD Usage Panel, historical analyses from several dictionaries, and a pinch of my own judgment, I will review a few fussbudget decrees you can safely ignore before turning to living distinctions you’d be wise to respect.”
Pinker isn’t shy about his own credentials; he tells us that he is “chair of the Usage Panel of the famously prescriptive American Heritage Dictionary (AHD).” But he’s also unafraid of the purists. “When I asked the editor of the dictionary how he and his colleagues decide what goes into it, he replied, ‘We pay attention to the way people use language.’ That’s right: when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum.”
I was interested to learn from the above-mentioned table that “aggravate” has been used to mean “annoy” since the 17th century and that this usage is accepted by 83 percent of the AHD language panel. When he comes to tabulate the “living distinctions” that he recommends we respect, Pinker crows: “And now the moment I’ve been waiting for: I get to be a purist!” I was happy to read that “bemused” does not mean amused, or “appraise” apprise. There’s no space to quote, but Pinker (not Dave Barry or Woody Allen) supplies general rules “for avoiding malaprops.” He’s always able to explain the principles behind grammar and usage, in contrast to many style manuals, which in addition to being joyless, prissy, and censorious, are unhelpful because the rules they promulgate “often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect … [a]nd the orthodox stylebooks are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time.”
Two chapters in The Sense of Style, “The Web, the Tree, and the String” and “Telling Right from Wrong,” are so packed with information that each might stand alone as a succinct text on grammar and usage respectively. That Pinker knows more than he can easily unpack into a single book—such that no matter how graceful the sentences and debonair the tone, the book as a whole comes to feel a bit overloaded—is a feeling I had in his How the Mind Works and Words and Rules, though not in The Language Instinct, which I found riveting from the first page to the last. This isn’t to suggest that The Sense of Style is too long or too full of information or hard to follow; it just covers a lot of ground, and sometimes the going is a bit denser than at other times. But it’s wonderful to have a book that contains so much and offers its contents with such energy.
I especially enjoyed a chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” which tackles the contemporary (and not only contemporary) problem of opaque prose in a refreshingly new way (although not wholly new; Pinker rightly credits Helen Sword’s excellent 2012 book Stylish Academic Writing with some of the same insights). Scholars don’t write in murky jargon because they believe opacity is a requirement for tenure; rather, their fundamental difficulty is “imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” As a cognitive scientist, Pinker has a lot to say about this, all of it engaging, but in general he steers laudably clear of what he calls academic narcissism—the assumption by scholars in any given field that everyone else will find the ins and outs of that field, its history and development, its cliques and infighting and consensuses, thrilling.
I haven’t done justice to The Sense of Style. I haven’t even quoted the Dave Barry passage that made me laugh out loud. I’ve quoted enough Pinker, however, to persuade you (or so I hope) to buy this entertaining, instructive, and useful book.
Rachel Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University–Newark. Her latest book of poems is Questions in the Vestibule, and she is at work on verse translations of Euripides's two Iphigenia plays.