Pinker's Sensible Style [Book Review]

A style guide for modern writers and thinkers.

2/7/20243 min read

unknown person writing
unknown person writing

To write good is hard. ::ahem:: Pardon me. To consistently write well is hard. ::ugh:: Let me try again. To write consistently well is hard. (Or is it, “To write well consistently…”?) ::sigh::

Enter Steven Pinker, psycholinguist, cognitive scientist, and author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014). Pinker is a prolific writer with books on a variety of topics: language, violence, human nature, and the mechanics of the mind. Heady stuff.

In The Sense of Style Pinker takes on the role of writing instructor—a compelling one at that. His guidance feels more like notes from a trusted mentor than a tome of commandments. He excels at making style relevant and interesting, two qualities seldom associated with composition pedagogy. In fact Pinker positions himself as a sort-of “anti-GrammarNazi,” a “Grammar Ally” interested in both prescriptive and descriptive assessments of modern writing.

Don’t expect stylistic dictates from this 350+ page manual. Pinker isn’t “anti-rules,” though. He’s pro-thinking:

“By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts. Providing reasons should also allow writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, mindful of what they are designed to accomplish, rather than robotically.”

Pinker focuses on non-fiction writing, though I argue that his lessons apply to many genres. In particular he hones in on “classic style”:

“a prose style in which the writer appears to direct the reader’s attention to an objective, concrete truth about the world by engaging the reader in conversation. ”

Dear reader: I ask—no, beg!—that, at the very least, you read chapter 2 of The Sense of Style. Familiarize yourself with the concept of classic style. Even a basic understanding of its purpose can have a profound impact on your writing:

“The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. 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.”

And how can writers help readers see the world?

“The things in the world the writer is pointing to, then, are concrete: people (or other animate beings) who move around in the world and interact with objects. […] Sometimes we do have to write about abstract ideas. What classic style does is explain them as if they were objects and forces that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.”

Clarity above all else—achieved by taking “concepts” and turning them into something the reader can “perceive.”

In a Scooby-Doo-esque fashion, Pinker unmasks the unexpected and well-disguised enemy of clarity: Knowledge. Zoinks! No, Pinker doesn’t argue that stupidity leads to clarity. He contends that knowledge can create a blind spot that curses smart people with increasingly obscure prose:

“The Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. […] The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.”

Pinker spills a considerable amount of ink explaining how to lift the Curse of Knowledge to accomplish clear, meaningful communication.

If you’re someone who learns by example, you’ll have plenty to peruse as the book contains snippets from superb writing in the genres of journalism, fiction, commentary, journal articles, and even obituaries. Hilarious obituaries. Pinker also contrasts good style with bad and asks you to see the world of clear writing for yourself. (See what he did there?)

While I recommend most of The Sense of Style without reservation, I should point out that some chapters (4, some of 5, and 6) are not for the grammatically faint of heart. In chapters 4 and 5 Pinker gets into a complex, if understandable, discussion of syntax “trees.” This information is useful but requires intense focus—especially if you’re like me and reading on the Metro or in a coffee shop. Chapter 6, too, might be better to reference than read. It’s mostly lists of common style “rules,” their history, and how to proceed when writing. (For example: The proper uses of “who” and “whom.”) But maybe you, dear reader, find that stuff particularly fascinating(!).

I also implore the critical reader to judge for him- or herself whether Pinker accurately describes the history of using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun—or if he defers to political correctness. (I lean toward the latter. His “prevalence” argument didn’t convince me.) Regardless let’s not throw out the baby with the tired clichés.

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is worth your time and Bitcoins—especially if you’re a competent writer interested in greatness.

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Thanks to Don Watkins, a master of clarity, for recommending this book. When Don recommends anything on writing or communication, I check it out. You should, too.

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If you’re interested in the concept of clarity in communication, you should read Leonard Peikoff’s Objective Communication: Writing, Speaking and Arguing and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics (together). In the field of visual communication, no one is better on clarity than Edward Tufte (Envisioning Information).