The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
S Pinker, Penguin Books, 2015, 368pp, £11.14 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 14312 779 6
Reviewed by Lucy Metzger
Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist, but he has also produced well-regarded discussions of style, including 'Why academics stink at writing' (Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 September 2014 (https://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989/)). In The Sense of Style, Pinker applies his understanding of cognitive language processing to questions of written style.
Pinker describes writing as 'a linear ordering of phrases which conveys a gnarly network of ideas'. We don't think in strings of words. Forcing a network of ideas into linear form gives rise to many of the stylistic problems that writers face. Pinker describes the web (of ideas), the string (of words) and the tree (of syntax): the tree allows the writer to convert the web into a string. The reader then absorbs the string of words and re-webs it into their own mental network. An effective writer chooses and arranges words in a way that makes it more likely that the resulting web in the reader's mind bears some resemblance to what was in the writer's mind. I see this notion as being useful to us, the readers of Editing Matters, as we work to ensure that nothing gets in the way of a client's words being converted, in the reader's mind, into the intended ideas.
Fortunately, the book is nowhere near as confusing as my previous paragraph. It's loaded with examples, many of them very funny, and is of course lucidly written. Pinker's pithy and well-illustrated characterisation of good style uses 'reverse engineering' to show why an effective piece of writing is effective. Another chapter is about the writer not knowing what it's like not to know: 'the better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn'. Pinker therefore believes that feedback is invaluable: 'That's why professional writers have editors'.
Pinker alludes to the science behind his assertions, although he's not heavy-handed with it. I relished his explanations of why certain style choices work and others don't. There's a fascinating discussion of negation (though here, and elsewhere, the book could have used more subheadings to allow for easier browsing and revisiting).
The last third of the book begins with a satisfying and reasoned denunciation of pedantry and purism, followed by a listing of one hundred issues of usage. This is subdivided into questions of grammar, expressions of quality and quantity, word choice, and punctuation. (I'd like to keep that last comma there, please.) I may reread this book some time, because I found it funny and thought-provoking, but I'm certain I'll turn again to this last section as a useful supplement – even an antidote – to other resources.