The Sense of Style

The Sense of Style A Short And Entertaining Book On The Modern Art Of Writing Well By New York Times Bestselling Author Steven PinkerWhy Is So Much Writing So Bad, And How Can We Make It Better Is The English Language Being Corrupted By Texting And Social Media Do The Kids Today Even Care About Good Writing Why Should Any Of Us Care In The Sense Of Style, The Bestselling Linguist And Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker Answers These Questions And Rethinking The Usage Guide For The Twenty First Century, Pinker Doesn T Carp About The Decline Of Language Or Recycle Pet Peeves From The Rulebooks Of A Century Ago Instead, He Applies Insights From The Sciences Of Language And Mind To The Challenge Of Crafting Clear, Coherent, And Stylish Prose In This Short, Cheerful, And Eminently Practical Book, Pinker Shows How Writing Depends On Imagination, Empathy, Coherence, Grammatical Knowhow, And An Ability To Savor And Reverse Engineer The Good Prose Of Others He Replaces Dogma About Usage With Reason And Evidence, Allowing Writers And Editors To Apply The Guidelines Judiciously, Rather Than Robotically, Being Mindful Of What They Are Designed To Accomplish Filled With Examples Of Great And Gruesome Prose, Pinker Shows Us How The Art Of Writing Can Be A Form Of Pleasurable Mastery And A Fascinating Intellectual Topic In Its Own Right.

the Harvard website.

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  • Hardcover
  • 368 pages
  • The Sense of Style
  • Steven Pinker
  • English
  • 16 April 2018
  • 9780670025855

10 thoughts on “The Sense of Style

  1. says:

    I have enjoyed every one of Steven Pinker s books, and this one is no exception Pinker writes engagingly, with humor, with intelligence, and with authority He is the chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, so he has useful insights into how the English language is being used in print As a linguist, he not only knows all the rules of writing, he understands the logic or illogic behind them Moreover, he understands which rules are real, and which ones were just dreamed up for the heck of it Pinker shows how many writers fall into a wide range of traps The chief trap is the curse of knowledge This occurs when a writer assumes that his reader knows as much as himself Some people believe that opaque writing is a deliberate choice Pseudo intellectuals often dress up their writings with highfalutin gobbledygook, as shown in this cartoon But even sincere, intelligent writers can overestimate their readers knowledge, and this leads to lots of wasted effort.Pinker discusses the old fashioned technique of diagramming a sentence This technique used to be taught in schools, but he shows that the technique is not the best He introduces a tree technique that focuses not on the parts of speech, but on the internal structure of a sentence and the relationships between its components The focus is on clarity, rather than on grammar.Pinker also puts great stock on the quality of coherence Do sentences fit together, with one leading logically to the next Are relationships between ideas written clearly, or are they muddled with sloppy organization Pinker shows how a writer can organize his ideas and make the reader s job easier.I learned some fascinating stuff People confuse the past tense with past time For example, I learned that the past tense of the words can, will, may, and shall, are could, would, might, and should Pinker makes it clear when to use one of these words rather than the other Some rules, like forbidding the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence, or splitting infinitives with an adverb, are simply superstitions The choice of where to place a preposition, or when to split an infinitive, should depend on clarity and not on someone s say so.Throughout the book, there are side by side comparisons between sentences showing two options The version on the left is usually ungrammatical or unclear, while the corrected version on the right is generally a better example Pinker discusses the reasons why one alternative is better than the other, and the reasons have nothing to do with blindly following rules the reasons always explain why one version is clearer or easily understood.If you are a writer, then you will want to read this book If you are not a writer, but simply curious about language as I am then this book can also feed your curiosity Highly recommended

  2. says:

    I was thoroughly charmed by this well written guide on how to write better Maybe it s because real language changes Maybe it s because true clarity comes from the spaces between the words and not absolutely from the rules about the words.But that s not to say that this cogent discussion on grammar isn t rife with practical examples and great reflection, because it does It just happens to bring up the fact that one generation s Haberdash is another s charming fireside chat Moreover, it uses humor, skepticism, and common sense to throw out the grammar nazism and return us back to the firm hand of insight and delight.For writing should not be a chore It should edify, clarify, and wrap us up in a warm comforter and hand us a favorite beverage and ramble on about what it really loved about its day Am I clear Rules are for chumps, yo But learn them first before you break them Advice I think I will always have to take to heart.

  3. says:

    It started well Your brain will finish the rest of that sentence.Or so Steven Pinker explains The best way to describe this book is as a style guide that relies on neuroscience Instead of admonishments based on grammar, old rules, and urban myths, Pinker explains the best way to write based on how our brain understand words on a page Which makes this one of the readable style guides out there in that it has a purpose instead of just being a list of literary taboos.But the list of taboos makes an appearance in the last third And then it becomes just another style guide that s better for reference than for reading Pinker doesn t provide bad advice here he comes down in favour of the Oxford comma so I m already a fan but the scientific explanations make fewer appearances and the whole thing just becomes a little less interesting He retains a sense of style throughout, which will carry you, just, to the end.Also on Twitter

  4. says:

    Steven Pinker has created a writer s guide that is interesting, useful, amusing, and also frustrating.I enjoyed the first part of this book, but the middle section got bogged down in parsing sentences and grammar exercises I put the book down and took a week long break from it, and debated whether to pick it up again I finally did finish, but it was a slog My big takeaways from this book were 1 language is constantly changing, and the English language is so inventive that when the grammar police come hollerin at you that you ve written something wrong, chances are there is a dispute over what is correct 2 Few things in language are correct, and even then, if enough people adopt that word or style, it may eventually be considered correct 3 This knowledge won t stop the grammar fussbudgets from complaining that people used to write better, which is also nonsense Language and writing are created by mankind, and creative writers love to break the rules, so 4 the fussbudgets need to knock it off, already.I listened to this book on audio, and I think the boggy sections might have been less frustrating and easier to skim if I had read that section in print Recommended, with reservations, for those who like writers writing about writing.Opening Passage I love style manuals Ever since I was assigned Strunk and White s The Elements of Style in an introductory psychology course, the writing guide has been among my favorite literary genres It s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the craft of writing It s also that credible guidance on writing must itself be well written, and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice William Strunk s course notes on writing, which his student E B White turned into their famous little book, was studded with gems of self exemplifcation such as Write with nouns and verbs, Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end, and best of all, his prime directive, Omit needless words.

  5. says:

    Chapter 1 summary 1 Insist on fresh wording and concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary 2 Pay attention to the readers vantage point and the target of their gaze 3 Use the judicious placement of an uncommon word or idiom against a backdrop of simple nouns and verbs 4 Use parallel syntax 5 Have an occasional planned surprise 6 Present a telling detail that obviates an explicit pronouncement 7 Use meter and sound that resonates with the meaning and mood Chapter 2 summary 1 The author calls attention to habits that result in soggy prose metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologizing, professional narcissism, cliches, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives 2 The writer, in conversation with a reader, directs the reader s gaze to something in the world Each of don ts in 1 make a writer stray Chapter 3 summary 1 Be careful of sharing knowledge that your reader does not understand Chapter 4 summary 1 Learn grammar and syntax 2 Avoid unnecessary words and phrases 3 Avoid sentences beginning with there is or it is 4 That does not mean cutting out every single word that is redundant in context 5 Make use of structural parallelism and understand its rules 6 Pull unrelated but mutually attracted phrases apart to avoid confusion 7 Save the heaviest for last in a sentence 8 Topic, then comment or Given, then new Chapter 5 summary 1 Monologophobia is the fear of using the same word than once On the other hand, elegant variation is using different words to identify the same thing Both can be a problem 2 Coherence is important A lengthy discussion about this one For example, it is important NOT to begin with what something is NOT So after you read this, do NOT think about a white bear 3 A coherent text is a designed object Chapter 6 summary 1 An alphabetical list of common problems in grammar Be sure to read this carefully and follow all suggestions otherwise the planets in our solar system will implode on each other and we will all die And you do not want to be responsible for that one, do you For a book about writing, this was a real slog to plod through.

  6. says:

    I ve long admired Pinker s poise with the pen Both The Blank Slate and The Language Instinct the two books of his I d before read are, in my opinion at least, conspicuously well written Popular science is, contrary to what one might expect, a difficult genre the writer must take complex ideas from esoteric subjects ideas usually mired in technical terminology and release them from their provincial prisons Added to this complicated task of exegesis, the writer of popular science must also work hard to entertain for popular science, like popular music, isn t a success unless it sells So when I heard that Pinker had just come out with a style guide, I quite naturally noticed as I am in perfect agreement with Pinker when he says I love style manuals Ever since I was assigned Strunk and White s The Elements of Style in an introductory psychology course, the writing guide has been among my favorite literary genres It s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the craft of writing It s also that credible guidance on writing must itself be well written, and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice.So, with my usual overblown expectations, I cracked open the pages of this book, hoping to hear secrets from a professional I will spoil the surprise and say that I was a bit disappointed the book was quite good, but could have been much better So allow me, if you will, to go through it chapter by chapter, noting the good, the bad, and the boring.This book starts out strong Pinker acknowledges what I wish style guides would that the foundation of good writing is not abiding by proper grammar, nor mastering some rhetorical tricks, but is simply being a sensitive reader In this vein, Pinker chooses four examples of good writing, and pulls them apart, providing us with a quick glimpse inside Pinker s readerly mind Speaking for myself, I think I ve learned about the art of writing from acquiring the habit of writing down attractive quotations than from all of the style guides put together Pinker also acknowledges something that many guides do not address that most guides are not properly guides to writing, but to revising Perhaps there are some who naturally speak in balanced phrases and arresting metaphors but for most of us, elegance is a product of careful reworking, of obsessive rewriting, of assiduous editing.Pinker s next two chapters are also strong First, he discusses a certain philosophy of style Classic Style This view is guided by two metaphors conversation and vision The writer of classic prose treats the reader as a conversation partner that is, as an equal Thus, new information is not presented as oracular pronouncements, but as a guiding of the reader s eye to previously unexamined bits of terrain just like one might tell an interesting factoid to a friend The implication is that the knowledge was there all along, and that the reader only needed the kindly writer to direct his gaze It is unsurprising that Pinker chooses this view to endorse this style is well suited for popular nonfiction and book reviews , what with its emphasis on concreteness, simplicity, and directness Of course, no philosophy of style could embrace all genres imagine how boring the world would be if everyone wrote like Pinker With that caveat on mind, I thought this view, and Pinker s presentation of it, very attractive.Next, Pinker discusses what he calls the Curse of Knowledge This is simply the difficulty that we all have in imagining what it s like not to know something we do know This has been proven in experiment, but daily life is full of copious examples how many times have instructions from a teacher or a boss struck you as ambiguous, vague, confusing People aren t good at giving instructions because they aren t good at imagining what it s like to need instructions for something they know how to do And even when people are made aware of this tendency namely, the tendency to assume that other people are aware of the same knowledge as are you they aren t very good at making the leap to clarity The only remedy, Pinker suggests, is an outside editor Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us Only when we ask those people do we discover that what s obvious to us isn t obvious to them That s why professional writers have editors Speaking for myself again, it s an alarming experience to have somebody single out a sentence as being obscure, which you found, after copious editing, to be clear as day The next chapter is where the book petered out Pinker, perhaps himself suffering from the curse of knowledge, launches into an explanation of the tree like nature of grammatical relationships For readers of The Language Instinct, this will be partially old ground His presentation here, however, is somehow less compelling The tree diagrams struck me as unnecessary I don t need a picture to understand why The impact, which theories of economics predict are bound to be felt sooner or later, could be enormous is wrong Further, I don t need tree diagrams to understand the utility of passive voice, or why sentences like this one, penned by Bob Dole, should be avoided The view that beating a third rate Serbian military that for the third time in a decade is brutally targeting civilians is hardly worth the effort is not based on a lack of understanding of what is occurring on the ground In short, in Pinker s attempt to make the subject of grammar clear using linguistics, his explanations became tiresome and superfluous.With chapter 5, the book begins to be interesting once Here, Pinker discusses the art of composition on a larger scale how to put ideas into an orderly succession, how to signal transitions of topic, etc He has some sensible things to say, but nothing very new, I m afraid It is, however, inevitable that there be a large degree of overlap between style guides Good writing is, of course, various in style and form but certain lessons are basic, such as how to arrange points coherently.Then we get to the final chapter, which occupies almost half the book I predict that this chapter will be either the most useful or the most tedious for readers if you write often, this will seem like the real meat but if you don t, it will seem pointless and pedantic What Pinker does here is disassemble, point by point, many of the bugbears and hobgoblins of purists, such as the proverbial split infinitive These rules, as Pinker points out, are usually based on linguistic and historical ignorance, adopted only because their proponents have been vituperative and vocal, not because the rules were reflective of good writing I personally feel a kind of Schadenfreude seeing Pinker make know it alls sound like fools, but perhaps I am just particularly sadistic Pinker is, however, careful to make a subtle point just because there are some bad rules, doesn t mean that all rules should be flouted Phony rules, which proliferate like urban legends and are just as hard to eradicate, are responsible for vast amounts of ham fisted copyediting and smarty pants one upmanship Yet when language scholars try to debunk the spurious rules, the dichotomizing mindset imagines that they are trying to abolish all standards of good writing It is as if anyone who proposed repealing a stupid law, like the one forbidding interracial marriage, must be a black cloaked, bomb clutching anarchist.So Pinker is not saying there are no rules to language, and no common characteristics to good writing all he is saying is that these rules and advice should be based on evidence, not ignorance Clearly, if Pinker didn t think there were any common characteristics of good writing, he wouldn t write a style guide And, while I m at it, if he didn t think that cultural and environmental influences were important as some people who accuse him of being a genetic deterministic claim then he wouldn t write a style guide, either Style guides are stuck in a bit of a paradox This book is aimed at somebody who reads and writes habitually it is full of technical advice for the frequent practitioner Thus, Pinker isn t working as hard to be as entertaining as in his other books, so the tone is somewhat dry than in, say, The Blank Slate this quite naturally restricts his readership to a subset of those who often write On the other hand, if you read and write much, Pinker won t say much that is surprising frequent practice gives one a feel for the correct and the spurious rule, the elegant and the jumbled grammatical form Thus, Pinker is in the odd position of delivering a sermon to a congregation of priests the nonwriter will be bored because the advice is irrelevant, and the writer will be bored because the advice is old news.But I ll admit that Pinker did clear up some things I was a bit shaky on For example, the rules governing singular and plural can get a little hairy We say The mac and cheese is, but Fred and Joe are because mac and cheese is treated as one thing, whereas Fred and Joe are two separate things But what about phrases less common than mac and cheese, such as flora and fauna I recently encountered this very problem when writing a review of Darwin s Voyage of the Beagle I was unsure whether to say the flora and fauna is, or the flora and fauna are Are they two separate things, or one inclusive thing like mac and cheese Or consider other ambiguous cases, like with the word or What s better Was the bicycle or the scooters damaged or Were the bicycle or the scooters damaged Both sound a bit odd to me.Perhaps the biggest drawback of this book, aside from the tree diagrams, was simply the formatting It s laid out like a work of popular science, not a work of reference thus, it would be fairly tedious to look up any specific questions one had For that reason, I can t see it becoming terribly influential writers can t point to a specific bullet point or principle in order to debate punctilious copy editors That s a shame, because Pinker has some really useful things to say on the subject Writing is hard enough without dogmatic pedants screaming in your ear But while I don t think this book is destined for classic status, it is still certainly worth reading Pinker manages to present a nuanced, evidence based view of grammar, while upholding the values that all careful readers and writers hold dear consistency, clarity, and grace.

  7. says:

    Superb book on writing.

  8. says:

    Having just embarked on a fairly intensive writing course, I asked my mentor for some recommendations of books on the craft of writing This book, The Sense of Style was at the top of his list, and I can see why.The author, Steven Pinker, is a Psychology professor at Harvard, and has also done much research on language and cognition he s described as a Cognitive Scientist Further, he is chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary And it shows All of it He has written a very readable, engaging, and entertaining manual on writing, providing a wealth of information which will help anyone write better prose He also goes into considerable detail on the mechanics of good writing, including syntax, noun piles, quantifiers, remote conditionals you get the idea Even though he goes quite deep on the technical side, he is very generous with clear, helpful examples of everything, a good many of which are laugh out loud funny I found the book to be a solid 4 or 4.5, but the final chapter, Telling Right From Wrong , was a lengthy and very practical compendium of many additional illustrations and applications that took it to a 5 If you are interested in becoming a better writer, you will benefit from this book

  9. says:

    Originally reviewed on the Night Owls Press blog here Heads up, editors In The Sense of Style, author Steven Pinker challenges every authoritarian grammarian and language purist who has held sway over the rules of the English language with their dogmatic style books A psycholinguist by profession, Pinker is a scholar of the science of language So it s no surprise that The Sense of Style feels like a modern alternative to the classic but tired guides of Strunk and White and others In my days as an English undergrad, Strunk and White s The Elements of Style was the biblical tome of writing But Pinker arrives with this iconoclastic book to show us that sometimes rules can be tone deaf to what really makes for transparent and compelling prose Purists often forget that the English language is rife with idiosyncrasies that can t be fit so neatly into rule boxes You ll see the best kind of rule breaking among poets and novelists, who often have the better ear and feel for language than your clumsy grammarian Language is chiefly a medium for expression, not just an embodiment of rules Literature s most gifted writers have often broken the rules using constructions that might have been edited into sterility by heavy handed editors The expressive possibilities of language often rely on the rules being bent As you can see, this book isn t your typical manual on grammar and usage You won t find a list of dos and don ts in an effort to indoctrinate Pinker shows us instead that unthinking adherence to manuals actually makes for bad, clunky writing For example, one of the signature rules in writing is to avoid using the passive voice at all costs But Pinker argues that if you change every passive sentence into an active one, you re not necessarily improving the prose The main problem is that the passive construction exists for a purpose but most people don t know when to use it effectively Sure, both active and passive constructions convey the same information but they have cognitive differences because of the order of information given Pinker s rule of thumb Passive is the preferred construction when the affected entity the item that receives the action is the topic of the preceding discussion or when the agent of action is irrelevant to the discussion In other words, good writing is about having a sense, about letting your communication goals dictate the writing.This book isn t for beginners Pinker is clear in the Introduction about this and writes that this book is for experienced writers You will benefit the most from this book if you are a relatively experienced writer and reader, and are familiar with the basic rules of language and grammar You have to know the rules in order to bend them with style and with compelling reason, to know when to take advantage of loopholes and irregularities.The sense in The Sense of Style is knowing how a masterful writer moves fluidly between logical rules and combinations, and knows those idiomatic usages and irregularities The book is packed with examples and is wonderfully readable, which surprised me Pinker is great at reverse engineering passages and illuminating what writers have done well or not done well to convey their ideas Take lots of notes For those who still crave the utility of a reference manual, the later chapters in the book include lists of words and rules that can be bent and those that can t in Pinker s opinion Or, for a bite size taste of the grammar rules Pinker explores in this book, check out this article by Pinker in The Guardian.Overall, a great, informative read I ll be keeping this on my reference shelf Disclaimer I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher through the Goodreads First Reads Program in exchange for an honest review.

  10. says:

    A great book on the considerations for writing non fiction.This book was written with the amazing style of Pinker s usual writings and it was about that style and practical advice to improve one s writings I am implementing the lessons I ve learned from pinker in my writing process for my blog And it improved my effectiveness to a great degree It is worth knowing that most advice on the book contains pretty solid arguments for them So you can use the arguments to find ways to improve writing, regardless of what language you are writing with.

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