Making Sense of Brainiac Steven Pinker's New Book on Writing
It’s not news that I love grammar, so it shouldn’t surprise any of you that I totally freaked out when I learned that author/experimental psychologist/cognitive scientist/linguist Steven Pinker had a new book about writing. Frankly, I had only read snippets of Steven Pinker’s other well-known books—The Stuff of Thought and The Blank Slate—and was only just a little familiar with his style of writing and subject matter. What got me all hot and bothered was the title! The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.
For years, I’ve been thinking about writing a style book for the modern writer that follows the path of Strunk and White’s essential 20th century guide—The Elements of Style. That slim, silver book has long provided writers with the essential dos and don’ts of writing clear, comprehensible prose, but it’s horribly outdated. That book was published in the early 20th century by E.B. White using much of the writing advice he learned from his professor, William Strunk, Jr., while White was a student at Cornell in 1919. Despite revisions over the years to include some updated usages and eliminate some sexist language, the advice hasn’t changed much in almost 100 years. So, when I saw Pinker’s book, I assumed that he’d beaten me to the punch and published the very book I’d been dreaming about. So without so much as reading a review, I pre-ordered a hardcopy and downloaded the audiobook version.
So for the last month, I’ve been absorbing Pinker’s book, and while it is well-written and thorough, it’s not a style guide. Yes, it does have the words “style” and “guide” in the title, but it is not at all structured like a typical style guide, nor does it reflect the format and purpose of Strunk and White’s little book or any of the modern style giants like Associate Press or Chicago Manual or Style. It is not a book that writers can use as a reference tool when they want to make sure they’ve selected the proper usage of a word, or if they want a refresher on the best way to use a semi-colon. The book is written as a chapter book with long, expository sections about grammatical topics. While it covers many of the topics that a style guide might include—verbs, nouns, usage—the ideas in the book are not structured to allow easy extraction of specific information.
It is, as the title says, a book for the modern thinker who thinks a lot about writing. As I am such a person, I did enjoy the book and its lengthy discussions about how the brain processes the English language and why certain grammatical concepts and sentence structures work better than others when it comes to creating meaningful, comprehensible writing.
Pinker explains many of the reasons that people have bad writing habits. For instance, “the curse of knowledge” causes otherwise intelligent and literate people to write unintelligible and viscous text that makes even their peers cringe and scratch their heads. Writers often know too much about their subject to be able to write objective prose that adequately conveys the message to their intended audience.
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 too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day.
Whether you are a neuroscientist writing for a group of neuroscientists or a sci-fi novelist sharing your latest work at a Star Trek convention, you still need to make sure your writing is palatable to the people you hope will consume it.
I enjoyed this discussion because "the curse of knowledge" is a something I run into constantly, whether I am reading a piece of flash fiction or a corporate email. I can’t tell you how many of the flash fiction entries I have had to skip over because I just can’t understand at all what the writer is talking about. If I can’t tell what your story is about—you’re not going to win. Same goes for emails from executives who assume you’ve been hiding in their office for the last ten years, hanging on their every word. Same goes for the employees who take comments to a boss who doesn’t have much to do with the day-to-day tasks of the employee. Just because you are in the same company, doesn’t mean you speak the same language. This scenario is played out in writing all the time. The writer cannot gauge what the reader actually knows. Adding a few words of explanation can take the guess work out of the equation and allow a reader to fully engage in the material.
Pinker also calls-on-the-carpet much of Strunk and White’s outdated advice. He meticulously parses such grammar commandments as AVOID PASSIVE VOICE and OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS. These edicts, he explains, are useful in a way, but always following these rules can actually limit your writing or create confusion. There are good reasons to rely on passive voice when you need to direct attention to something other than the doer of an action, such as the action itself or the consequences of that action. And a passage of prose containing only the essential words would be boring as heck! Pinker even takes on the stodgy-old-English-teacher’s stereotypical gripe that students don’t know how to diagram sentences anymore, and he points out the absurdity of the many complaints published over hundreds of years that literacy is on the decline or that “young people” are destroying the language.
In fact, Pinker takes issue with many of the edicts enforced upon the writing public by “moms and English teachers” and militant copywriters and “spinster schoolteachers” and other archetypal grammarians. He mentions that knowing the difference between who and whom is important is some cases, but not as crucial as you might think. He also is okay with “between you and me” and other such phrases pointed out by the puritans as being indicative of stupidity in the writer.
As I got further into the book, the fact that it was NOT a style guide bothered me less and less. In fact, Pinker explains his purpose in the introduction:
The Sense of Style is not a reference manual in which you can find the answer to every question about hyphenation and capitalization. Nor is it a remedial guide for badly educated students who have yet to master the mechanics of a sentence. Like the classic guides, it is designed for people who know how to write and want to write better…This book is also written for readers who seek no help in writing but are interested in letters and literature and curious about the ways in which the sciences of the mind can illuminate how language works at its best.
Pinker wanted to do more than add to the giant pile of writing advice and write a book about why writers commit certain word crimes. He wanted to explore what makes good writing and what makes bad writing at a level that surpasses a simple memorization and utilization of a series of rules. Good writing comes from creating meaning that is both interesting to the reader and understandable. It comes with knowing how a reader thinks and processes written information. Some of this knowledge can be learned and some is already known by most writers, just not fully understood. Good writing is nuanced and intentional. Each word, sentence, paragraph, and page must work together to convey its message, and there’s no one right way to do it, and there is no book that can contain all the rule variations a writer would need to know to produce perfect (not that there is such a thing) writing all the time.
This, frankly, is not news to me. I often try to explain to my students and readers that grammar “rules” are imperfect and ever-changing, so it’s best not to get hung up on any particular one. What was considered good practice in 1919 is not the same in 2014 because the readers and writers and technology and understanding and culture have all changed. As almost anyone who has extensively studied a language not native to their own knows, language, usage and “rules” are entirely cultural and subjective. I’m very jealous of how well Pinker was able to articulate this in his book.
With that in mind, this is a great book for grammar dorks like me who enjoy dissecting sentences and discussing at length why a particular word or passage does or does not work. It’s a great book for linguists and scientists who like to think about the ways that language works in the brain. It is NOT a great book for someone looking for quick advice on grammatical topics. However, I disagree with Pinker when he says that his book is NOT for “badly educated students” who already have trouble writing. In my opinion, this book would be very helpful to the many “not-so-good” writers whom I have taught that always wanted to know WHY some particular grammar rule worked and another did not. It was because of the difficulty they experienced when writing that they needed to know more than just the rule. For the writers to whom language came easily and naturally, they cared less about the why—because they had the instinct. I can think of many non-word-freaks who would actually get quite a lot out of this book because it will give them so much more than a set of rules to follow.
So if you are looking for a new style guide to replace Strunk and White—look elsewhere. (Or find a way for me to quit my job for 5 years, and I'll write it for you!) But if you are interested in how language and grammar work on the page and in the mind—regardless of your actual skill in writing—then this is a great book for you.
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