The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker is the first book of his that I’ve read, but I already have an academic crush on him from his euphemism treadmill concept. A style manual is not the kind of thing I usually write about and this isn’t really a review; it’s a review-ish, which we’ll talk more about shortly.
This probably isn’t the kind of book you’d read just kinda sorta for fun, although there are some pretty enjoyable moments. I focused on the fun bits and skimmed the rest. It’s written for a high reading level audience, and the author’s vocabulary is certainly a lot better than mine is. It’s the kind of book where a word like “indubitably” seems like it just flows rather than being a sign of someone trying to show off.
The book covers things like sentence structure and grammar (including the genitive case, which my Polish blogging friend Emilia might be interested to hear), but the bits I found most interesting were aimed at geeks like me who are used to academic-style or niche professional writing who want to share our words with the rest of the world in a way that doesn’t bore them to tears.
Pinker writes, “Classic style ignores the hired help and looks directly at what they are being paid to study.” He recommends that writers avoid “professional narcissism” and quit telling people what researchers or other specialists are thinking and wondering and spending their time with. Apparently, no one cares, so cut that bit out entirely. Hmm, note to self, add that to my editing list for my work in progress…
He tells us to stop it with “the prissy use of quotation marks—sometimes called shudder quotes or scare quotes—to distance the writer from a common idiom.” I’m a shudder offender, although I don’t think my motivations are prissy. My own shudder-worthy peeve is arbitrary capitalization.
Here’s another bit that had me making notes in my editing list, because I do this all the time:
“And then there’s compulsive hedging. Many writers cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply that they are not willing to stand behind what they are saying, including almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue (does this mean that you would argue for your position if things were different, but are not willing to argue for it now?).”
I did briefly get annoyed, almost enough to knock him off the academic crush pedestal. He was writing about the overuse of abstract nouns, and he provided examples of bad sentences and how to fix them. It was the content of one example that irked me: “People who are mentally ill can become dangerous.” Really, we’re hauling out that old stereotype? Come now, a little more originality, please.
Back to the fun stuff:
“Together with verbal coffins like model and level in which writers entomb their actors and actions, the English language provides them with a dangerous weapon called nominalization: making something into a noun. The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, –ation, or –ing.“
I tend to go in the opposite direction, using nouns as verbs, like people-ing. I add –ish to assorted nouns. Here we have Review-ish in this post’s title, and a search of my blog reveals multiple past uses of the suffix, including “eugenics-ish.”
When it comes to grammar, Pinker isn’t so into cut-and-dried rules, and he offers plenty of examples of rules that you can feel free to ignore at least some of the time. He does draw the line on a few things, though; just stop it already with “irregardless,” and quit using “literally” as synonymous with “figuratively.” I’ll add a bit of a variant to that, quit using mental health as synonymous with mental illness. They’re not the same thing!
I’ve wondered sometimes whether punctuation goes inside or outside end quotes. The last sentence two paragraphs back ends in “eugenics-ish,” with the punctuation inside the quotation. It seems weird to me, but that’s what I think you’re supposed to do. Steven Pinker to the rescue! That’s the American way, but he thinks it makes no sense. In fact, he likened it to Superman wearing his underwear on the outside.
I’m quite confident that this was the first time I ever read a style manual for fun, and I’m equally confident it will be the last, but there were definitely some good moments.
This interview with Charlie Rose is from 1995. We’re not actually interested in the interview here, but good God, look at that hair! I feel like it deserves poetry dedicated to it.
The Sense of Style is available on Amazon.
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