Being a professional writer (as most academics are), I have read many books on style. Most of them are opinionated, fussy and annoying — such as Strunk and White’s most (in)famous book, The Elements of Style. Some are opinionated, fussy and amusing — such as Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, at least before its editing fell into others’ hands. But Steven Pinker’s recent book on style is one of the few I’ve seen that is opinionated, unfussy and well informed — and the first I’ve seen that reflects a deep understanding of both language and cognition, which is both unsurprising (Pinker is a leading cognitive linguist) and inspiring. Someone’s finally done style in style!
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014, Allen Lane) is filled (primarily) with good sense about style. To give you some idea, I’ll give you its parting message (in my own words, mostly): If you really want to improve your writing, consider the following principles.
0. Don’t pay attention to the anal-retentive Ms Thistlebottoms of the world who insist that splitting infinitives is evil or that punctuation is always thus-and-so. They are more often wrong than right.
1. Look things up. Humans are doubly cursed with fallible memories and overconfidence in their beliefs. Strong convictions about the meanings of words, correct usage, and how things hang together, in both yourself and others, are only weak indicators of truth. Dictionaries and thesauri (I looked it up) should be consulted when there is doubt.
2. Make sure your arguments are sound. Verify your sources and test your arguments before publishing them, if you can. If you can’t, then learn something about argument analysis.
3. Don’t confuse an anecdote or your personal experience for good evidence for a general proposition. A cold winter doesn’t mean global warming is unreal, contrary to a large number of dimwits active on Twitter. If this causes you problems, learn something about science and scientific method.
4. Avoid false dichotomies. Everyone has some impulse towards characterizing their enemies as subhuman or evil. Black and white exhausts the usual color spectrum. Try to see a little better than your neighbor or interlocutor. Try to avoid the “fundamental attribution error”, that whatever someone has done or said can only be due to their internal nature, their essence as a subhuman. Conservatives are not necessarily evil (or stupid), nor are liberals.
5. Follow Ann Farmer’s tagline: “It isn’t about being right, it’s about getting it right.” Don’t distract yourself with ad hominem arguments, focus on the reasoning in arguments.
Pinker brings considerations of cognitive science to bear on questions of language and communication that are quite useful. One example is his treatment of the “Curse of Knowledge”: the tendency to assume that your audience is at a level similar to your own, so that things you take for granted are also well known to them. Pinker argues that this is the major cause of incomprehensible prose. The phrase was invented by economists trying to explain why some market players don’t take advantage of others’ ignorance, because they act as though unaware of the others’ ignorance, since they do not share it. But related difficulties with empathy and understanding are well studied in young children and primates by cognitive scientists attempting to understand how people model and reason about the mental states of others. People mature into an understanding of the mental states of others, unless they are handicapped. But we all retain some tendency to assume more knowledge than we ought in our readers and listeners. And this explains more than a fair share of bad student reviews of lecturers who can’t stop talking well above the level of comprehension of their students.
The Curse of Knowledge is, like many of the biases cognitive psychologists study, very hard to cure. As Donald Rumsfeld infamously said, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and the unknown unknowns are the hardest to deal with. Since the Curse concerns states of mind we are not directly familiar with, we have to apply some imagination to cope with them. Being aware of the problem is a first step, after which, as Pinker writes, you can see it all around you: acronyms that are full of meaning to only some of the many people who encounter them (e.g., ADE, CD, VLE, IELTS, ATAR); a walking sign that tells you how long a walk takes, but not whether it is round-trip or one-way; innumerable gadgets with obscure combinations of buttons required to get things done; and innumerable computer applications likewise. If you notice the many ways other people’s knowledge is being used to stymie you, you may acquire a taste for catering to other people’s ignorance when you are communicating with them.
Perhaps the majority of style books document most closely the prejudices of their authors, rather than drawing upon much evidence. Pinker, rather more sensibly, refers to evidence both from the history of English usage and from cognitive science. This often clarifies matters of style, whether they are in dispute or not. For example, instead of simply stating that parallel constructions are often stylistically neat and dropping in a few illustrations, Pinker shows how parallel constructions aid the reader in parsing sentences and how failures of parallelism (“stylistic variations”) interfere.
The “Great War” of style is between Prescriptivists and Descriptivists. Prescriptivists believe that proper grammar and style can be codified in a set of rules, and good writing is a matter of finding the right ones and adhering to them. Linguists, lexicographers and good writers don’t agree with them. There is no algorithm for good writing — not yet, anyway. Linguists can trace the historical and pre-historical relations between families of languages because of two things: there is continuity in the way language is used, and there is continuous change. Were the Prescriptivists to win their war, languages would cease to be useful, for nothing will stop the world from changing. On the other hand, Pinker is not so drenched in his descriptive studies of human cognition to not see advantages in some prescriptions. Take the word “disinterested”. Pinker points out that its earliest uses were in the sense of one being uninterested, rather than in the sense of allowing an impartial judgment. The Oxford English Dictionary, at any rate, gives quotes from 1631 for the former and 1659 for the latter. A pure Descriptivist must accept both usages, but Pinker quite sensibly points out that “uninterested” works perfectly well for a lack of interest, so reserving “disinterested” for a compact way of expressing the second sense makes sense. As a language must strike a balance between its own past and its current surroundings, neither pure Prescriptivists nor pure Descriptivists can capture its essence.
When I read, I almost always find something to disagree about, and Pinker’s book, despite being first rate, is no exception. So in conclusion, I would like to register one complaint with Mr Pinker. While I think most of his judgments about language and style are right, and often well grounded with evidence, there is a principle which he ignores, that I have held to over my career: language is first and foremost spoken and only secondarily written. If you find yourself tempted to write something which you cannot imagine yourself speaking in any circumstances, then you are being tempted into a stylistic error. For a few examples: the use of the genitive apostrophe, according to Pinker, always demands a following “s” (except for some historical special cases). But this (according to me!) is wrong. People say “Bayes’ Theorem”, not “Bayeses Theorem”, and so it should be written with no trailing “s”. Similarly, acronyms are pronounced a certain way, and how the indefinite article is used with them depends upon that. So, if someone writes “an NBN connection”, that means in their idiolect “NBN” is spelled out when speaking; if they write “a NBN connection”, that either means that they say “NBN” in some other way, perhaps like “nibbin” or that they are not thinking about what they are writing. Many people miswrite the indefinite article, or English more generally, by not reflecting on how they speak.
The advice to read aloud your writings before finalizing them is not idle advice.