Sense of Style

SenseofStyleThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Steven Pinker
Viking Adult (September 30, 2014), 368 pages
Kindle Edition  $12.99, Amazon Hardcover  $16.77
e-book borrowed  from the Santa Clara County Library System

This is one of those books where the author interviews on National Public Radio were more engaging than the actual book.

Pinker does in fact deliver some good examples of how to improve one’s writing. He does a good job of providing examples of poor writing and how to transform them into better writing. At the same time this book is not a style guide. Pinker is a linguist, and he delves into some rather technical aspects of writing. He for the most part dismisses the value of diagramming sentences. But he then proceeds to provide a “tree” view of sample sentences, something that made my eyes glaze over.

Nonetheless the intent of the book is admirable and Pinker is working here for a noble cause. He admits to being a descriptive linguist, but then goes on to say:

quoteBut the book you are holding is avowedly prescriptivist: it consists of several hundred pages in which I am bossing you around. While I am fascinated by the linguistic exuberance of the vox populi, I’d be the first to argue that having prescriptive rules is desirable, indeed indispensable, in many arenas of writing. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

Well said.

The last chapter does act as a sort of mini style guide where Pinker provides some best practice examples for various constructions. He concludes the book by telling us:

quoteWe can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.

That, in short, is why I love writing and why I love reading.

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