Saturday, 19 December 2015

book review: The Sense of Style

Steven Pinker.
The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century.
Viking. 2014

Steven Pinker has written several popular science books in his areas of expertise: language and cognition. These books deliver profound insights, and they are also tremendously readable, delivering those insights with style and verve. In this latest offering, he moves from presenting research results in a readable manner, to presenting advice on how to write readably, fittingly also in a readable manner.

Writing well is non-trivial. Pinker describes his own process.
[p76.] Most writers polish draft after draft. I rework every sentence a few times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before I show it to anyone. Then, with feedback in hand, I revise each chapter twice more before circling back and giving the entire book at least two complete passes of polishing. Only then does it go to the copy editor, who starts another couple of rounds of tweaking.
The book is divided into six meaty chapters, each capturing a different aspect of good writing. This is not about picky little examples, held up by those anxious grammar police as the epitome of style; rather it covers the deeper structure and content of prose. This means that simple rules of thumb, such as "avoid the passive voice", should not be used indiscriminately: although the passive often has the effect of moving attention away from the guilty agent (such as yourself), sometimes it is needed to focus attention onto the important agent.

First, Pinker introduces good writing in general, dissecting examples of good, and bad, prose, pointing out where they work, and where they fall apart. I did not always spot which were the poor examples until that subsequent dissection made it clear; I am perhaps too used to reading inelegantly written text for it to sound out of tune to me.

Next, Pinker discusses classic style, a particular style for writing clear, compelling prose, eschewing obfuscation. He summarises it thus:
[pp28–29.] The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the readers gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.
That passage itself, along with most of the book, is written in classic style. Pinker then takes many examples of convoluted, turgid academic prose, and shows how to rewrite them in a clearer, comprehensible, livelier style.

In chapter 3, Pinker covers The Curse of Knowledge: the writer knows a lot more about the subject matter than does the typical reader, and can bamboozle them if they are not careful. It is hard to get the right level, between confusing and patronising the audience. Pinker provides a few tips.

Next we get a chapter on an area of Pinker’s expertise: grammar. His aim is to show how an understanding of grammar can not merely make sentences grammatical, it can also help prevent grammatical ones from being difficult to parse and potentially ambiguous. From this chapter it is clear that English grammar has changed from what I was briefly taught in school many years ago. Then it was all nouns and verbs, sentence subjects and objects; now it appears that there are different categorisations, and finer distinctions:
[p86.] Modern grammatical theories … distinguish grammatical categories like noun and verb from grammatical functions like subject, object, head, and modifier. And they distinguish both of these from semantic categories and roles like action, physical object, possessor, doer, and done-to, which refer to what the referents of the words are doing in the world. Traditional grammars tend to run the three concepts together.
There are lots of good examples in this chapter, and Pinker uses grammatical theory to demonstrate why they are problematic, and how use of grammatical structure can improve them. With his usual lightness of touch, Pinker distinguishes ways to advertise a pair of panel discussions:
    1. A panel with four professors on sex
    2. A panel on sex with four professors
    1. A panel with four professors on drugs
    2. A panel on drugs with four professors
In the first case, formulation I avoids a potential mis-parse; however, in the second case, formulation II is the unambiguous one. There is no simple rote solution to be employed. This is the toughest chapter in the book, and Pinker occasionally falls prey to the Curse of Knowledge himself here.

In the next chapter, Arcs of Coherence, Pinker moves up from discussing single sentences to addressing the overall structure of a piece of prose. This includes advice about stating the topic early on, to give the reader something to hang the rest of the text on, and then to present the rest of the text in a logical order that makes sense to the reader. These potential platitudes are enlivened through a great choice of examples.

The final chapter reverts to grammar police style: rights and wrongs. Pinker subverts the usual prescriptive style, however, taking time to explain why most of the grammar police edicts are flat out wrong. But at the end, even he cannot resist his own list of preferred and problematic usages.

This is an excellent guide to clear writing, and I would recommend it, along with Williams’ Style, to all aspiring communicators.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.


  1. Thanks. Sounds like an book worth reading.

    Some typos from above.

    until that subsequent -> until the subsequent
    a particular style for write clear -> a particular style for writing clear
    a logical orderthat makes -> a logical order that makes

    1. Thanks! I've fixed the second two typos -- the first isn't a typo: I'm referring to that dissection mentioned in the previous sentence.

    2. Interesting ambiguity. I read "that dissection" as intending to refer to a dissection that would follow each of the example pairs. You meant almost the same thing but more like the act of dissecting that you mentioned in the previous sentence.

  2. Whenever I'm thinking of buying something (from Amazon) I read the negative comments. The negative comments on both the Pinker book and the Williams book were enough to convince me not to buy them. (They were all pretty well-written as well.)