The Sense of Style

I think I’m going to have to move The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker up on my reading list. As if I didn’t have enough of a backlog already. He’s been doing the book tour and I like what he has to say.

SenseofStyleIn short, his message is that while there are many rules of English that need to be followed, many rules are arbitrary and need not be. He says that while sources such as Strunk and White in their iconic style guide and George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language” have a lot of value to impart, not everything that they say should be followed slavishly.

One of the things Pinker tells us is that it is perfectly fine to split an infinitive. (“To boldly go where no one has gone before,” to use the Jean-Luc Picard version.) He says the rule is arbitrary, but he doesn’t tell us why it exists. I wish he had. A few centuries back a couple of grammarians decided that the rules of Latin grammar should be imposed upon English. This made no sense because English is a Germanic language; it isn’t even in the same family as Latin. But they made that declaration nonetheless, and it stuck because the Latin language was so revered. The problem is that in Latin the infinitive is a single word (amare), not two as in English (to love). (I can’t use the verb “go” as an example because it is irregular in both languages.) You can’t split an infinitive in Latin, so they said you shouldn’t in English. Nonsense. Split your infinitives with a clear conscience.

I have heard Pinker on two public radio programs. He was interviewed on Here and Now by Robin Young. While a good interview, it was a very structured, bullet point sort of exchange. But it contained a lot of good information. Pinker was also on Forum on KQED-FM in San Francisco. Michael Krasney is always a marvelous interviewer, but this was an engaging conversation between an English professor and a linguist. It’s twenty-five minutes well spent.

One of the points that Pinker made to Krasney was that we should leave our work and come back to it later, something I always try to do. He also said that we need to get someone else to read our drafts. Tahoe Mom and I agree on that last point, and it’s a luxury I’d like to have.

I need to get to the book.

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