MH@H Book Reviews

Book Review-ish: The Sense of Style

book cover: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

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.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

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29 thoughts on “Book Review-ish: The Sense of Style”

  1. I’m liking some of his terminology. “Shudder quotes” (of course I had to put this in quotation marks) and “verbal coffins”, which I particularly like.

    “Irregardless”? I’ve not come across that before. I must admit, I didn’t know it was a proper word. I just use “regardless” or “irrespective of”.

    I think I’m getting a bit brain bashed with words lately and what’s politically correct, what’s not. What “should” be used in what situations, what shouldn’t. I used to be pretty decent with spelling and grammar, just not so much these days. A few things have always and continue to trip me up at times, a bit like with you saying about the punctuation around quotation marks. Sometimes it just looks odd, even when you see it in a book you’re reading and know it must be correct, it still looks weird!

    Bloody hell, that hair. You can easily date a video just by the hairstyle alone. Wow.

    1. Irregardless isn’t a word, but it’s a frequently made-up word that people use rather than regardless.

      My spelling has gone way downhill, and I’m no longer confident in my ability to know what words mean. Thank goodness for Google or I’d be a complete disaster.

      It’s wild how easy it to pin down dates by some combination of hair, accessories, and clothing.

  2. I can’t write in any voice but my own which was a definite problem with school papers – perhaps one reason I never went beyond a B.A. – I knew I couldn’t be all stiff and proper. As for punctuation and quotes – if the punctuation is part of the quote then it goes inside the end quote. If it is not part of the quote then it goes outside. Simple as that…

      1. But that makes no sense – it is no longer a quote if you are altering it, it becomes – what? – a paraphrase? Certainly not a direct quote. And you can quote me on that…

  3. Huh, that sounds like an interesting book, if a bit sleepifying sometimes (changing nouns into verbs (and adjectives) is fun, I wish Polish was a little bit more flexible with creating neologisms this way!).
    I didn’t know that shudder quotes were a thing or at least that anyone else had a problem with them other than me. They make such a standoffish impression. I don’t think I’ve seen this phenomenon very often in English, although I might just not have paid attention as I think I pay attention to slightly different things when reading in English vs in Polish vs in any other language, but in Polish it’s a plague, some people can’t even write a slightly slang-ish or just simply modern word without quotes.
    And the mental illness/health used as synonyms… *sighs* Why don’t people say that they suffer with physical health, or health in general?
    Next time I have a problem finding new faza I might look into academic crushes instead, I like the idea. 😀

    1. I’m so impressed that you know the word neologism.

      My main academic crush is Patrick Corrigan, a psychologist and stigma researcher. I think he’s absolutely brilliant.

  4. I like your take on the book Ashley as you’ve turned it into fun, tho’ I’m not sure it’s for me – what with all those big words? I’ve read somewhere that punctuation must be inside the quote marks?

    1. I guess big words don’t seem like big words if you use them all the time. Kind of psych jargon – I forget sometimes that those words don’t necessarily make sense to everyone.

      Maybe I should propose an abridged version of this book to the author. Keep the fun bits, toss the rest…

        1. Haha I think I used it in the post about deinstitutionalization (another big word) and mentally ill people being stuck in the corrections system revolving door.

  5. Another fun style manual we skimmed because it was interesting, which you might like, is “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” with a Panda on the cover 🐼

  6. My dad had that hair in the 70s haha!!
    I liked this article a lot Ash and my note to self is “…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.”
    That is what I’m paranoid about especially when sharing a more personal article about my life. I can’t write helpful medical articles unless it involves autopsies which is what I was trained in. A very morbid niche there.
    Sharon xx

    1. The 70s and 80s were such a fun time for hair!

      The autopsy niche is one I know next to nothing about, but it sounds fascinating, even if it is on the morbid side.

      1. The 80s, oh my goodness the ringlets and French pleats.
        I wrote a piece called Eyes Glazed Over which is a graphic but scenic peep into the human body that I shared. First hand experience I’ll never forget as alas, I was medically retired way to early.

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