Last week I purchased a copy of Steven Pinker’s new style book A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

You see, I’m a sucker for these kind of books. I will buy pretty much any writing style guide or book on style. With a quick glance at my bookshelves, I own The Penguin Writer’s Manual (practical), The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar (dull), The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide (good on punctuation), Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose (good on verbs), Stephen King’s On Writing (the best on fiction), William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (the best on non-fiction), Shakespeare’s Wordcraft (fun, but not useful), Thank you for Arguing (simply bad), Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (bad in a complicated way), F.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of English Usage (good taste, poor reasons), Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (a better book than the title might suggest), The Oxford Book of English Prose (an anthology), The Economist Pocket Style Book (clear but sometimes journalistic), Raymond Quenau’s Exercises in Style (playful), Strunk and White The Elements of Style (of course) and, the best, F.L. Lucas’s Style.

Why? Because I wish I could write well. Just as those anxious about their weight buy diet book after diet book, hoping that the next book will tell them the one quick cure and not advise fruit, vegetables and exercise, I read style book after style book, hoping for an easy trip to kick-ass prose and instead see the same advice about reading lots, writing lots and generally working hard at the craft.

It was with this same hope and anxiety that I began A Sense of Style.

Discussions of language make people foam at the mouth. The language usage wars are described as battles between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. The prescriptivists earn their name because they prescribe writing in a particular way, arguing that some uses of language are illogical, wrong or ugly. Descriptivists feel that the only way to decide the correct usage in English is to observe how people English speakers use the language and to describe that. Prescriptive style guides are generally written by people who have very good taste in style and know very little about grammar. They are forever making descriptivists furious by justifying their usage preference as a grammatical law. Descriptivists, in turn, revel in taking a prescriptivist’s article and beginning a full on tu quote attack, picking apart the text for breaches of prescriptivist rules, ignoring the possibility that while prescriptivist rules may be difficult for even their most ardent followers to adhere to all the time, in general, following them creates clearer and prettier prose.

Steven Pinker has come to make peace between these two warring tribes. The whole controversy is based on a misunderstanding of how language rules are decided. Pinker’s description of the two camps is so excellent that it is worth the price of the book alone. I am going to indulge myself with a long quote from that section:

The key is to recognize that the rules of usage are tacit conventions. A convention is an agreement among the members of a community to abide by a single way of doing things. There need not be any inherent advantage to which choice is made, but there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Familiar examples include standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, and paper currency. The conventions of written prose represent a similar standardization. Countless idioms, word senses, and grammatical constructions have been coined and circulated by the universe of English speakers. Linguists capture their regularities in “descriptive rules”— that is, rules that describe how people speak and understand.

A subset of these conventions are less widespread and natural, but they have become accepted by a smaller virtual community of literate speakers for use in public forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia. These conventions are “prescriptive rules”— rules that prescribe how one ought to speak and write in these forums. Unlike the descriptive rules, many of the prescriptive rules have to be stated explicitly, because they are not second nature to most writers: the rules may not apply in the spoken vernacular, or they may be difficult to implement in complicated sentences which tax the writer’s memory.

Pinker, Steven (2014-09-04). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (p. 191). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

A Sense of Style is on the whole a prescriptivist guide, aspiring to the “classic style” outlined in the second chapter. It is perhaps the first prescriptivist guide written by someone with an excellent understanding of linguistics.

The points where this expertise is most valuable is when killing off the worst pseudo-rules of bad style guides. His general method throughout is to examine what linguistics has to say about the rule in question; most often there may be some truth in the old prescriptive advice but the actual grammatical rule is more complicated than the prescriptivists understand. Where the grammar is unclear he reaches for the results from the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel – a survey sent to professional writers in the US asking their judgement on a series of style questions. This ammunition is powerful stuff: Pinker massacres the bad rules.

There are the easy targets like the prohibition against split-infinitives. No serious writer thinks Captain Kirk should have said, “To go boldly” rather than “to boldly go”. The alternative sounds leaden and split infinitives are common in both everyday and formal writing. But Pinker also takes aim at more subtle nonsense, such as the stickler’s distinction between can and may. In primary school there was one teacher who every time we said, “Can I go to the toilet?” replied, “It isn’t can but ‘may I go to the toilet?’” We were good children so rather than pissing over her floor we rephrased the question. If only I had Steven Pinker there to explain that the distinction between may (permissibility) and can (capacity or possibility) is only really found as a slight preference in formal writing and it is only when talking about permission that may is preferable. Whether the teacher wanted to maintain formality about bodily functions is an issue by itself, but the grammar didn’t require it.

Another excellent moment is his discussion of “I will” and “I shall”. A small proportion of you reading this will automatically recognise that when speaking of the future “shall” is used in the first person and “will” in the second and third person but that when speaking about determination or permission the usage is reversed. It turns out that you are likely to be English. That rule has always baffled me. Pinker explains that the rule is little observed by English speakers anywhere except in England. I and several hundred million English speakers are now emancipated from this difficult rule. English people: continue to worry.

Later in the book Pinker tries his hand at picking winners in usage battles where neither linguistics nor the American Heritage Dictionary shows a clear favourite. His rationalisations for particular choices are, on the whole, unconvincing. He is most convincing when defending the usage of technical terms such as “begging the question” or “dichotomy”. This should not be a surprise since technical language is part of his daily life as an academic. Pinker is better at getting rid of bad rules of usage than creating better ones.

Although George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” remains the best explanation for the ideological reasons for writing badly, it fails completely to explain why my first-year essay on Gerald Manley Hopkins was so incomprehensible (Does anyone really know what Sprung Rhythm is?) or why I almost certain I will find some howler in this post just after I hit publish. Why is writing well so very difficult? Steven Pinker’s third chapter attempts to provide an answer. The answer is that good sentences carefully use pattern and the reader’s expectations to string one part of a complex thought together after another, overcoming the normal limits of our working memory. The problem is that the writers struggle to imagine what it is like for the reader not to already know what the writer knows. Everyone struggles with this blindness towards other minds but it becomes worse the more you know about a subject. As you become knowledgeable something — that is, as you become the type of person who has something interesting to write about — things that were once difficult to understand about your subject become familiar and you encode memories in new ways that free up working memory for other thinking. Once you begin to write it becomes your job to unpack those memories, try to imagine how someone unfamiliar with the material thinks and repackage the ideas into easily digestible sentences. This is, unsurprisingly, difficult to do.

The whole chapter is a wonderful example of non-fiction writing and easily the most mentally-taxing part of the book. More than ever, it reminds me that good writing is an act of empathy towards a mental reader; much of what we think of virtues of good writing — clarity, brevity, honesty — are acts of kindness towards this imagined person. There are echoes of this idea in F.L. Lucas’s excellent Style: The Art of Writing Well (easily the best style guide I own.) It was Lucas’s belief that once the writer got past the basics of technique, good writing was the application of good character:

Style, I repeat, is a means by which a human being gains contact with others; it is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech. If handwriting reveals character, style reveals it still more — unless it is so colourless and lifeless not really to be a style at all. The fundamental thing, therefore, is not technique, useful though that might be; if a writer’s personality repels it will not avail him to eschew split infinitives, to master the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which,’ to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage by heart. Soul is more than syntax. If your readers dislike you, they will dislike what you have to say. Indeed, such is human nature, unless they like you they will mostly deny you even justice.

In the beginning of the book Pinker asks why learning to write seems so fraught with anxiety among students and prompts such stern admonishments from teachers:

An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography?

Because, Steven, writing is about communicating across a page between a reader and a writer. It is a relationship in which the best writers must develop enough trust and faith to ask their readers to follow complex, lengthy and often difficult thoughts. If we want to read great writing, we need to respect our writers —  at least on the page. And therefore bad writing comes across as a betrayal of this writer-reader relationship, a moral not just a technical fault.

Steven Pinker’s book comes highly recommended by me but I remain unconvinced that style guides will ever provide  the shortcut to good style that I so crave. Joan Didion (whose style I adore) said, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned,” and I believe her. Understanding the intricacies of grammar and usage is little more useful for learning how to write than understanding how a car works is useful for learning how to drive. Yes it is useful to know where the pedals are and what a clutch does but in the end only practice will help.

Share Button

Stephen Buggy