Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (Allen Lane 2014)
I love a good argument about punctuation, spelling, syntax or the meaning of words. Does MS Word really allow minuscule to be spelled with two Is? How about the person who wrote to the paper complaining that septic tank should be aseptic tank or at least have an apostrophe to mark the missing letter? What is the difference between ‘my Aunt Mabel’, ‘my aunt Mabel’ and ‘my aunt, Mabel’, and are they all permissible? Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style doesn’t tackle any of these questions, but I reckon he’d be up for the conversation.
For the record, my favourite style guide is Joseph M Williams, Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. Pinker doesn’t attempt that book’s succinct guidance, but he brings a cognitive scientist’s perspective to the subject, and his cool, witty, reasonable approach is a joy. Well, mostly a joy: the middle chapter, ‘The web, the Tree and the String’, explains the intricacies of English syntax in a way that verges on the tedious if you already have a grasp of the subject, and is probably impenetrable if you are looking for enlightenment. Apart from that skippable chapter, the book is rich with insight.
Pinker focuses on the ‘classic style’, in which, he says:
The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. … [P]rose is a window onto the world.
In the classic style, the writer simulates two experiences: showing the reader something and engaging in conversation with the reader. There are plenty of other legitimate styles – Pinker names contemplative, romantic, prophetic, oracular, oratorical, practical, plain, ironic and postmodern – but thankfully this book sticks with just the one, which, Pinker says, is ‘an ideal that can pull writers away from many of their worst habits’.
He identifies a number of those habits, conveniently listed as ‘metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologising, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives’. That’s quite a list and for my money an extremely useful one. It’s characteristic of Pinker’s approach that he warns against memorising it as a list of don’ts – better, he says, to keep in mind the guiding metaphor in the quote above.
There’s a great discussion of incomprehensible prose. Rejecting the popular explanation that much academic and bureaucratic writing is deliberately impenetrable for self-protective or self-promoting reasons, he reaches for the tool known as Hanlon’s Razor: ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ (Hanlon’s Razor was new to me in that form, so I was interested to read more about it in Wikipedia, and delighted to see that Goethe wrote a version of it in 1774.)
The kind of stupidity Pinker has in mind is what economists call the Curse of Knowledge:
a difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.
This sounds simple, yet – and here Pinker’s cognitive science background comes into play – psychologists regularly discover more or less the same thing with new names: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, and so on. In the writing context, ‘It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem to obvious to mention, have no way to visualise a scene that to her is as clear as day.’
Pinker has a lot to say about the Curse of Knowledge, and makes some useful suggestions for how to guard against it, but in the end, sadly, there’s no silver bullet to remove the curse. But how good it is to be reminded starkly:
The form in which thoughts occurs to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader.
After an excellent chapter on coherence, which I plan to reread carefully, Pinker gets to the fun bit of any book on style in a final chapter, ‘Telling Right from Wrong’. After a sweet demolition job on the pedants who write to the newspapers (of whom the ‘septic tank man,my example, not Pinker’s, is my favourite), in which he takes apart the Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist myth, he pronounces on a hundred usage issues – mostly what he gives is the current consensus among linguists, but where experts disagree he gives his own best judgement.
This chapter is a proofreader or copy editor’s delight. I’m grateful for his clarity about the subjunctive. I cheer aloud when he, a USer, curls his lip at US punctuation conventions for the end of quotations, or takes issue with rigid rules about that and which, or talks sense about among and between. I want to be in the room with him to argue about datum and data. I’m chastened by his entries on decimate and unique, and my dissatisfaction about fortuitous remains unallayed. While I don’t understand his argument about between you and I, from now on I’ll stop bridling when people say it. You’ll have your own examples.