A guide to writing in the 21st century

Book Review: The Sense of Style

With his sixth book on language, Steven Pinker—author of the hugely influential The Language Instinct—applies his considerable expertise in cognitive science and linguistics to crafting a modern-day style guide for, as he puts it, “people who know how to write and want to write better.”

If you count yourself in that group, you likely own a style bible of old, be it Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or Fowler’s Modern English Usage—and you will not appreciate finding them frequently in Pinker’s crosshairs. You may also be offended by his characterization of language purists as “sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots, nitpickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis, and the Gotcha! Gang.” I should know: As a copy editor for this magazine, I am one.

But Pinker has convinced me that, not only will we not go to hell for splitting an infinitive, sometimes it’s the only way to boldly go. He explains why many rules are illogical or outdated, and pooh-poohs the hand-wringing of purists who believe texting and social media are corrupting language. He does draw some lines, however. He has zero tolerance for malaprops such as “disinterested” for “uninterested,” and “literally” for “figuratively,” and is a proponent of the serial comma. But his main prescription is that writers and editors concentrate on applying critical thinking and factual diligence to their work, not rigid rules.

Pinker mines everything from obituaries to Dear Abby columns for good writing. He dissects the opening lines of Richard Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” writes Dawkins. “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” Pinker responds: “Good writing starts strong . . . The starkness of the paradox is reinforced by the diction and meter: short, simple words, a stressed monosyllable followed by six iambic feet.” A writer aspiring to write better could do worse than add this guide to her bookshelf.

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