Review Of Steven Pinker’s “The Sense Of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century”

Steven Pinker Sense Of Style

Steven Pinker on the written aesthetic.

Now, to be sure, I have never had much use for style guides. Yes, there was all the studying for the writing portion of the SAT, years ago, which required lots of rule-learning and — even worse — the application of said rules to poorly-written ‘answers’ that were anything but right. Yes, I’d been assigned the oft-banal Strunk & White’s Elements Of Style in college courses, and have, out of curiosity, perused a number of similar guides not only across form and genre (prose, poetry, non-fiction, sci-fi, grammar) but multiple languages, as well, just to see how the rest of the world, well, merely hypothesizes the sorts of things that are in fact REAL to me. For instance, I still recall reading Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, and finding — even as a 10 year old with a desire to impart stories — the thing too restrictive for anyone but the worst writers, to whom issues of mechanics and advice re: ‘world-building’ might narrowly apply.

Thus, I was both intrigued and a little alarmed when I read the title of Steven Pinker’s new book. Now, don’t get me wrong. While admittedly a very good writer with MANY interesting ideas across the board, Steven Pinker is a thinking academic (as opposed an academic thinker!), first, and has not, in his occasional comments on the topic, shown any deeper understanding of the arts. Yes, he’s constructed some great arguments, and pointedly done away with scientific fraud within the clarion of a mere sentence or two, but that does not really lend itself to art criticism. This is because the wisdom (not ‘knowledge’) immanent to recognizing a great poem, or the odd assortment of skills and luck that goes into differentiating a good from bad metaphor is nigh-indefinable. In short, while true creativity might be easy to quantify, if one merely KNOWS how to evaluate the works, themselves, its source in most cases isn’t. This means that no intellect, personal background, type, or force of character guarantees success in this endeavor, and Pinker’s book, to its credit, does not pretend otherwise.

Before getting into the book’s negatives, however, one must first say what it does right. Although it is easily the worst of the 3 or 4 books of his that I’ve read, The Sense Of Style is also, unsurprisingly, the best style guide that I’ve ever read. This is because it simply drops a few key hints re: usage and style, combs over the important historical trends as a kind of guideline, and thus allows the reader — at least for the most part — to draw his own conclusions on aesthetic matters, keeping the long view in mind and minimizing the least defensible stylistic errors. Too often, style guides are bogged down by dull proscriptive rules that don’t give a damn for rhythm, music, ambiguity, and subtleties of meaning that, in the end, do FAR more for language than thoughtless obedience ever will. Thus, instead of offering endless rules, Pinker merely suggests the use of “classic style,” which is a way of writing that approximates speech (at least in some respects), assumes equality between reader and writer, engages in dialogue, goes for rhythm and sound over mere correctness, and always keeps the object of writing, i.e., what is being communicated, in mind. No, it’s not a formula that can ever create truly great writing, but it can at least get a few sub-mediocrities into slightly better company — which is the REAL goal of style guides, if one is realistic about things like talent. In other words, if Pinker’s advice were to be followed, bad CNN articles would produce fewer guffaws, instruction booklets would be a little clearer, and life, while getting on as is, a bit more manageable on the whole. Style guides can’t do much more than this, however, and one of the flaws here is that Pinker does not make this explicit, assuming, as he does, that replication of the good and great would be more common if merely taught and/or ‘aspired’ to.

In fact, the book’s greatest strength is not really its style portion, but its central argument, and what this argument entails for the future of writing, providing, as it does, some alternatives to how good language is presently thought about. The world, Pinker claims, has always been riddled with faux scares wherein this or that ‘authority’ declaims the debasement of language, the breakdown of literature (sometimes forever), or a people’s sudden inability to write a good, coherent sentence. Pinker gives many examples, such as the slow disappearance of the subjunctive in speech, the malignment of “ain’t” (going on for over two centuries, now), the old hatred for now-standard words such as “contact” and “prioritize,” ridiculous rules concerning passive voice, and prophecies dating back hundreds of years about the dissolution of English.

But the issue, Pinker argues, is not in any of these individual usages or trends, but in the fact that language changes over time. Words come in and out of vogue, grammatical constructions (which are not always logical, and therefore subject to endless variations) change, and writers — even highly influential ones such as Milton, Shakespeare, and Whitman — tend to ignore the sort of advice that’s always being given to ‘save’ literature. This is partly because whatever stress is placed upon a language, it will simply adapt to it in unpredictable ways, whether it’s in the physical issues of writing (i.e., Chinese ideograms being more historically clunky than alphabets), or the influx of new words and malformed, immature styles being rehabilitated into something better by those with the talent to do so. This is why broken, ungrammatical dialogue has genuine poesy within the films of Martin Scorsese or the plays of Eugene O’Neill, despite running absolutely counter to everything that might have been written of ‘good taste’ just one century prior. And it’s pretty clear that, in time, even the much-maligned Internet lingo will be rehabilitated into something deeper, as well. Just as predictably, however, when this bullshit will finally be accepted, the new bullshit — whatever it may be, decades hence — will be decried, only to be assimilated in its turn by those that have learned to see opportunity in detritus. No, Pinker doesn’t make all of this so explicit, but leaves just enough room for a good reader to build upon the theories, within, thus engaging REAL ideas in a way that few style guides ever do.

Steven Pinker’s “tree” schema is likewise an interesting update to typical grammar mapping. In Pinker’s model, sentences, instead of simply being mapped into traditional categories of parts-of-speech, are broken down into a fluid movement of phrases and clauses. Pinker uses the image of an upside-down tree that groups small words at the bottom, phrases a little higher, larger phrases even higher, and clauses and even bigger clauses at the top. In this way, syntactical relationships are clearer, and it is CLARITY, as opposed to rule-making, that is kept as the model’s final aim. It also capitalizes on a peculiarity of English in that the left-to-right order of syntax is tied up with two separate tasks: action and sequencing, the latter of which applies not only to the logical action within a sentence, as it plays out in reality, but also to how the brain processes word-sequences, in general, irrespective of the ‘real time’ they might signify. As Pinker writes, “a writer must constantly reconcile the two sides of word order: a code for information, and a sequence of mental events.” In effect, the tree model simplifies both, and encourages a study of grammar that is more concerned with meaning and relationships than arbitrary and impenetrable rules.

Finally, some of Pinker’s more specific comments on bad writing habits are pretty spot-on. For instance, he tackles issues such as “signposting” (or not trusting the reader to follow your own cues, thus needing to broadcast everything), the over-use of the pronoun “we” (which often serves to reduce the impact of a writer’s own statement, hiding it, as it were, under the umbrella of ‘humanity’), metadiscourse (self-conscious writing for a very limited, often academic audience), apologetic quotation marks instead of taking responsibility for a word or phrase head-on, compulsive hedging, and — interestingly enough — the use of intensifiers such as “very,” “highly,” and “extremely” as hedges, as they can qualify a statement that would otherwise have to be taken as an absolute. But perhaps his most cogent comment re: the arts is that “Classic prose is a pleasant illusion”: or, “a pretense, an imposture, a stance.” Yes, there’s the unfortunate conflation of good writing with ‘the truth’ that Pinker eventually makes, but in this comment, at least, are the seeds of what art is: a mere TRICK. Or if that’s too harsh, a concentrate OF reality, funneled off from a much larger mass, as opposed to reality or ‘the truth,’ itself, which is more random, banal, and happenstance than even seemingly disorganized great art, a la Martin Scorcese’s characters, or the seeming (and ONLY seeming) improv within John Cassavetes’s dialogue. In fact, these are all very tightly constructed art-works, as is “classic style,” in Pinker’s own model, wherein a slow, methodical process is made to look effortless.

Yet The Sense Of Style has other pretensions that go well beyond being a style manual, thus confusing the book’s overall purpose and catching Pinker in traps that he himself lays. Perhaps the biggest issue comes at the book’s start, and because it IS at the start, and not merely nestled away in some appendix, the careful reader will come to question Pinker’s later arguments, as well. As noted, Pinker begins his book with a personal bias for “classic style,” which is not really an issue because style guides, in general, must take these positions anyway. The issue comes when Pinker goes from making a personal call (“classic style” as a preferred aesthetic) to giving examples of GOOD prose (at least in Pinker’s mind) written in the classic style. Get the difference? The latter is no longer mere ‘taste,’ but a purportedly objective judgment that Pinker usually fails to make the case for, given his inability to separate fresh writing from cliches, predictable narrative arcs from genuine and meaningful surprises, and competent metaphors from awkward ones. Thus, when Pinker argues for this or that literary ideal, he simply confuses the reader into accepting many of the same illusions that he himself has, even though much of his own writing — by luck or instinct — is impervious to their ill effects.

Here are some of Steven Pinker’s examples of great writing in the classic style, all culled from the 21st century. The first is from Richard Dawkins’ book, Unweaving The Rainbow:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Pinker calls this good writing, but let’s take a look at his argument. He calls the opening sentence “strong,” as a kind of counter-intuitive hook, but in fact it’s merely passable as such. This is because, while quite stark and eye-catching, on the ‘pro’ side, it is paired with an utterly shallow insight — the very definition of “melodramatic,” i.e., sentiments that are needlessly exaggerated given the reality they are responding to. This means that the passage, far from revealing new, richer meanings upon re-reading (as all great writing does), simply dies with examination. Yes, there’s music, rhythm, and other elements that purely academic writing never seems to have, but that is mechanical soundness, NOT great writing, which does and encompasses more.

Pinker claims that Dawkins’s “the sand grains of Arabia” cliche has, in fact, “a touch of the poetic,” and even claims the cliche is inverted due to its use of “sand grains” as opposed to the more familiar (in Pinker’s mind) “sands.” This is untrue, however, for this is a minor and not-even-cosmetic change that, realistically, changes nothing, as both phrasings are very common, easily recognized, and appear in identical contexts. To be an inverted cliche, as Pinker claims, the word “sand” would have to be affixed to something else altogether, in substantively unfamiliar territory, a fact that Pinker seems to get, but cannot articulate through examples. Numerically, then, Dawkins’ cliche appears just as often as “sands,” if not more so, and Pinker says nothing of the cliche immediately preceding it (“never see the light of day”). In short, while exhorting the reader to never use cliches, for they deaden mental imagery, he ignores one and fails to recognize (and even praises) another. This is not good, for a careful reader will keep all this in mind as the book progresses, taking Pinker’s later, more cogent advice with due and undue skepticism.

Besides this, Dawkins’s passage is also ridiculously banal, ranging, as it does, from the sort of illogic that Pinker arbitrarily rips elsewhere (‘we are lucky to have been born’ vs. ‘we are ordinary, and this happens all the time’), to its several obvious cliches, to the odd, asymmetrical conclusion. Yes, we DO exist against “stupefying odds” — at least in a purely technical sense — but the fact is, most people ARE ordinary (as Dawkins points out), and therefore interchangeable, rendering this genetic diversity utterly meaningless, and obviating, in fact, the sentiments of pretty much the entire paragraph. Yet Dawkins does not see this, opting, instead, for some faux poetics that Pinker is hoodwinked into accepting as the real thing, even though the initial ‘hook’ could have worked much better in another, less melodramatic context.

The second excerpt is from Steven Pinker’s wife, the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, from her book Betraying Spinoza:

Personal identity: What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically?

I stare at the picture of a small child at a summer’s picnic, clutching her big sister’s hand with one tiny hand while in the other she has a precarious hold on a big slice of watermelon that she appears to be struggling to have intersect with the small o of her mouth. That child is me. But why is she me? I have no memory at all of that summer’s day, no privileged knowledge of whether that child succeeded in getting the watermelon into her mouth. It’s true that a smooth series of contiguous physical events can be traced from her body to mine, so that we would want to say that her body is mine; and perhaps bodily identity is all that our personal identity consists in. But bodily persistence over time, too, presents philosophical dilemmas. The series of contiguous physical events has rendered the child’s body so different from the one I glance down on at this moment; the very atoms that composed her body no longer compose mine. And if our bodies are dissimilar, our points of view are even more so. Mine would be as inaccessible to her — just let her figure out [Spinoza’s] Ethics — as hers is now to me. Her thought processes, prelinguistic, would largely elude me.

Yet she is me, that tiny determined thing in the frilly white pinafore. She has continued to exist, survived her childhood illnesses, the near-drowning in a rip current on Rockaway Beach at the age of twelve, other dramas. There are presumably adventures that she — that is that I — can’t undergo and still continue to be herself. Would I then be someone else or would I just no longer be? Were I to lose all sense of myself — were schizophrenia or demonic possession, a coma or progressive dementia to remove me from myself — would it be I who would be undergoing those trials, or would I have quit the premises? Would there then be someone else, or would there be no one?

Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself? The sister whose hand I am clutching in the picture is dead. I wonder every day whether she still exists. A person whom one has loved seems altogether too significant a thing to simply vanish altogether from the world. A person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world. How can worlds like these simply cease altogether? But if my sister does exist, then what is she, and what makes that thing that she now is identical with the beautiful girl laughing at her little sister on that forgotten day?

Although Pinker correctly goes on to say that different styles can lead to the same kind of greatness, he errs in choosing Dawkins and Goldstein as exemplars of this idea. No, it certainly is not the lifeless garbage that fills academic journals, but is it great writing? There is, for instance, the opening paragraph, with the awkward, oddly euphemistic ending (“at least not unproblematically,” vis-a-vis death) that makes Goldstein’s later connections THAT much more predictable. Then, Pinker notes a sentence wherein the cliche “small ‘o’ of her mouth” is praised as an inversion that “conjure[s] a mental image of the act rather than skating over a verbal summary.” But it  really doesn’t, for that image is already present in a good reader’s mind, culled, as it is, from a long-standing cliche re: the mouth’s alphabetic shape, and is therefore ready-made, and requires no mental pauses — the very thing that Pinker in fact encourages good writing to do.

Pinker also compliments “The sister whose hand I am clutching in the picture is dead” as an abstract reverie that is “punctured by a stark revelation.” But this implies that the reverie’s attachment to death is somehow surprising, or otherwise playing with the reader’s more impulsive expectations. It is not. In fact, an experienced reader will, from the very beginning, know EXACTLY where the narrative arc is going for precisely the reasons Pinker states: that it STARTS with a euphemism for death (“at least not unproblematically”), immediately goes to the trope-cliche of an old photograph examined by a narrator, skates around “abstract” and “wistful nostalgia” (Pinker’s phrasings), and circles back to the philosophizing that kicked the piece off with a comment on death. In fact, I was surprised when this “revelation” occurred ONLY because I figured she already implied it, only to be further hammered with it at the end. Yes, her prose is clear, her meaning is obvious — all hallmarks of “classic style” — but whether such things are done WELL, in terms translating into excellence and depth of writing, is another issue altogether. At bottom, every trick of Goldstein, every technique and revelation, is transparent from the passage’s start, and it is hard to keep a good reader interested when such things are too easily guessed at.

Margalit Fox, a journalist who is mostly known for her obituaries, is chosen as the third exemplar, and is actually the worst writer thus far. I will not quote her at length, but stick to one obituary in particular, representative, as it is, of much of her writing:


Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying, and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday, in Danbury, Conn…

Roundly praised, intermittently censored, and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children.

Pinker calls this “deadpan wit, an affection for eccentricity, and a deft use of the English lexicon,” but Jesus, where does one even begin in pointing out his errors? I mean, just count the number of cliches strung into a single sentence: “the safe, sanitized world,” “plunged it into the dark, terrifying, and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.” Simply consider the forced verbiage: his books were “occasionally eaten” — what?? And Pinker defends this by saying that sometimes, books ARE in fact “eaten”?! Then, there’s the cutesy language that is meant to justify such forced, awkward wording after-the-fact: these books were, at one point or another, “essential ingredients”. (Get it? Because ingredients can be “eaten”.) There’s more — a lot more — that Pinker quotes from Fox, not all of it this bad, but the fact that Pinker opens his section on Margalit Fox with this obituary, in particular, is alarming, and further puts little doubts in the reader’s mind of Pinker’s competence with the rest of the book. Thus, 3 of 4 excerpts in, and Pinker inadvertently torpedoes many of the better insights that will come later.

The final quote is from journalist Isabel Wilkerson, who has a solid (even if somewhat functional) take on the Great Migration, ending in a good paragraph that builds suspense all the while dissipating it in the last minute, thus nicely recapitulating her own argument in a mere two-word sentence:

From the early years of the twentieth century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every black family in America, had a decision to make. There were sharecroppers losing at settlement. Typists wanting to work in an office. Yard boys scared that a single gesture near the planter’s wife could leave them hanging from an oak tree. They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay, and they each had a decision before them. In this, they were not unlike anyone who ever longed to cross the Atlantic or the Rio Grande.

It was during the First World War that a silent pilgrimage took its first steps within the borders of this country. The fever rose without warning or notice or much in the way of understanding by those outside its reach. It would not end until the 1970s and would set into motion changes in the North and South that no one, not even the people doing the leaving, could have imagined at the start of it or dreamed would take nearly a lifetime to play out.

Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century…

The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.

They left.

Pinker goes on to praise Wilkerson for her making this period ‘specific,’ as opposed to merely statistical or abstracted, via sentences such as “typists wanting to work in an office” (as opposed to the impersonal “denial of economic opportunities” — Pinker’s example), calls “a single gesture…could leave them hanging from an oak tree” absolutely “horrific,” and even compliments the fact that we know it is an “oak” tree, as opposed to something else. The wan “As hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay” is called a “poeticism,” while Pinker goes on to give preference to phrases that fit his personal aesthetic, NOT what is necessarily most communicative. So, “when the land turned to dust” is supposedly better than “the Dust Bowl,” “when there was nothing to eat” is preferable to “the Potato Famine,” and “the landless” superior to “peasants”.

Yet if you were to take all of these phrases — both Wilkerson’s, as well as Pinker’s — and string them along a hierarchy of bad, good, and great, they’d merely crowd each other in the same rank, as there is not much appreciable difference from Pinker’s own counter-examples. The fact is, Wilkerson’s supposedly poetic descriptions of lynching are fairly rote, appearing, as they do, in thousands upon thousands of similar journalistic pieces over many decades, and her much-lauded specificity (“typists” vs. something abstract) alleviates only the worst of the worst academic writing. No, it ain’t Homi K. Bhabha’s prize-winning sentences, but the fact that it’s not some highly abstracted dreck does not, by extension, bring her own writing to greatness. If anything, it’s simply there, and therefore easy on the eyes and brain. But that’s HARDLY a stab at true distinction, but mere readability. Yes, the last paragraph is good (for reasons Pinker is correct on), but this, at best, makes Pinker 1 for 4, now, which is worse than dart-tossing. This reveals that, at least when it comes to OTHERS’ prose, Pinker is much more swayed by his own emotions, as opposed to good, objective judgment.

And these flaws crop up not only here, but in much smaller examples in the book, as well. In showing the reader how to write better prose, for instance, many bad suggestions inevitably come up. In one particularly egregious case, Steven Pinker starts with a wonderful observation: that “even when a shopworn image is the best way to convey an idea, a classic writer can keep his reader engaged by remembering what the idiom literally refers to and playing with the image” — absolutely true, since cliches, by their very nature, force the brain into a state of non-engagement, which good writing ought to remedy. Yet in his own suggestions as to how this happens, Pinker’s side-by-side ‘improvements’ of supposedly inferior prose are anything but. Thus, the idiomatic — if a little rote — “When Americans are told about foreign politics, their eyes glaze over” becomes the talky and effete “Ever tried to explain to a New Yorker the finer points of Slovakian coalition politics? I have. He almost needed an adrenaline shot to come out of the coma.” And this silly but innocuous comment: “Electronic publication is scholarship on steroids” is turned into an utter caricature of itself: “With electronic publication, you can see your stuff published just 15 seconds after you write it. It’s scholarship on methamphetamines. Publication for speed freaks.” Get it? The assumption is that “methamphetamines” is better than “steroids,” that one cliche (“speed freaks”) is somehow better than another (“on steroids”), and that expanding one silly, six-word sentence into 3 reiterations of the same fluff can somehow ‘correct’ things. And if that’s not enough, there’s also this little transition: from the cliche “He threw out the baby with the bathwater,” to the awkward, eyebrow-raising “The bath was dry, and the baby had vanished.” Thus, Pinker offers a cogent precept — that cliches ought to be played with and made less familiar — and utterly destroys it with his own application.

Yet those are not the only issues with The Sense Of Style. In one unfortunate turn, Steven Pinker decides to reject the “bamboozlement theory” of bad writing for something he calls “the curse of knowledge”. To Pinker, bad writing — especially jargon-heavy writing — is often caused by authors who simply have too much knowledge of their field, and have therefore forgotten what it means to actually COMMUNICATE  this knowledge to those outside of a small academic circle. But while this is certainly true for things like instructional booklets, or scientific fields, and the like, the more obvious explanation for bad writing is pure INABILITY. Now, it may sound ‘too obvious,’ but bad writers are not simply cursed with too much knowledge, but, like most people (a category that even the very intelligent belong to), simply don’t have a way with words — as Pinker’s 4 examples of “great writing” indubitably proves. If one merely looks at, say, academic writing, or even pure fiction, there is an utter sameness and genericism from article to article and book to book, that ALSO implies a genericism of thought, which the stylelessness only highlights. Moreover, although the bamboozlement theory of bad writing — i.e., that bad writers often obfuscate shallow ideas with fancy, empty words — is ultimately rejected, Pinker seems to not realize how pervasive this phenomenon really is. Yes, it’s harder to get away with such in Pinker’s field, as well as other hard sciences, ‘pure’ history, and the like, but it is not only common in the liberal arts, but is in fact the norm. Of the hundreds of academic articles I’ve read in full over the years, plus the thousands or so I’ve skimmed in other capacities, virtually all of them sound alike, argue similar things (despite the writers’ assumption of somehow being ‘different’), say very little worth repeating, and very little that is ever going to be remembered. Just look, for instance, at the academic articles of 1954, via your local university library, and tell me if more than .001% of those once-leading names are recognizable today. No, this is not the malicious sort of bamboozlement that the phrase implies, but in a world where most ‘insights’ are shallow, and genuine ideas rare, such puffery is taken as the norm, and one-upmanship becomes an exercise in self-negation. This is true of film studies, the visual arts, theater, music, poetry, cultural anthropology, prose… At end, there are no real thoughts or personalities left in the bulk of writing on these topics, merely words that don’t add up to much, as they don’t come from much, in the first place, except a cynical academic game that most writers don’t even realize they’re playing. Yet Pinker fails to see this, even as he disparagingly quotes from the worst contemporary offenders.

As noted, Pinker values the “classic style” above others, but his reasoning is only halfway there. Yes, it is true, as he argues, that it’s important to keep the writing’s object in mind, to be clear (most of the time), and so on. To Pinker, this is because good writing — fiction, included — needs to find patterns that ‘mesh’ with the brain, thus facilitating faster and easier communication. This is a neural reading of art that, to be sure, serves as an initial blueprint for good communication. But, because it is a mere blueprint, it serves the bare minimum, reserved, as it is, for prose stylists who simply need to learn how to write competently before tackling even the most functional of tasks. In fact, the other part of this equation of “mental patterning” and “ease” actually FIGHTS against these more natural impulses of the brain for ease and assimilation. This other, deeper part is there to make you WORK — to force you to re-read things, and reconcile ambiguities that, in ‘pure’ classic style, tend to appear only rarely, for they violate the style’s basic aesthetic. Realistically, art as a whole needs to have BOTH features, and a tension between these features to really work. This is true in fiction passages, wherein a subject or object can be neatly buried in huge, seemingly overlong paragraphs (as in a couple of Irwin Shaw stories), for purposes that become clear only with re-reading, or expansive, Moby-Dick sentences that violate so many tenets of grammar, but MUST do so in order to establish some of the meanings that they communicate. These examples, in fiction, non-fiction, and everything in between, resist Pinker’s more neural reading of literature, for our sense of patterning, and desire for satisfaction — often immediate satisfaction — is at odds with the some deeper things that run counter to such whims. And in between our whims and the things outside of ourselves is a comfortable medium wherein true art lies. Go too far afield, and you risk losing a connection to what’s recognizably human. Stick too close to home, and you risk self-absorption. The Sense Of Style is marred by the latter, as it is too safe even when it purports to push boundaries.

Thus, if one were to summarize the book’s flaws in one sentence, it is this: that Pinker confuses “good style” with deeper communication, as well as with art itself. Style (as he in fact argues) is merely the MEANS to the latter. Yet while Pinker seems to recognize this, intellectually, he does not really get it when it comes time to deliver with examples — the only way, in fact, that true understanding can be communicated. In fact, the problem with style guides on the whole is that they necessarily deal with detritus. They cut a large path and generalize, not on how to make bad writing good, but mediocre writing palatable. To be sure, this is a perfectly acceptable goal, but Pinker’s issue is that he has a pretense of doing something else, and ends up doing it poorly.

The Sense Of Style has a few excellent moments, but is so bogged down by traps that Pinker can’t help but fall into, that they are inevitably lost upon readers trying to get at the ‘thing’ that Pinker, himself, can’t fully articulate. This is not really of service. But unlike pretty much every other style guide and how-to book that’s out there, it is at least a beginning. Too bad that Pinker can’t tell the trajectory, nor lead things where another must.

[Update 12/21/2014: Michael Leddy offers a more history-of-grammar critique of Steven Pinker’s book here, making some valid points re: Pinker’s attribution of grammatical rules.]

12 Comments Review Of Steven Pinker’s “The Sense Of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century”

  1. Dan Schneider

    Prob yr best review yet.

    Pinker seems to have fallen into the trap of writing beyond his expert purview. He’s a good writer of science, which needs to be lucid and declarative, with easily understood metaphors, but poetry, drama, fiction, do not work the same way.

    Dawkins, like Pinker, is a good prosist, at best, but that’s for science, not CREATIVE writing. Science merely discovers, art creates. I read some essays of his wife, and her writing was utterly generic. There was not inner person there.

    Compare good science writers like Pinker, sagan, Dawkins, Bronowski, et al, w a great science writer like Loren Eiseley. Here is from Man the Firemaker:

    We hear a good deal about the Iron Age, or age of metals, as a great jump forward in man’s history; actually the metals themselves played a comparatively small part in the rise of the first great civilizations. While men learned to use bronze, which demands little more heat than is necessary to produce good ceramics, and later iron, for tools and ornaments, the use of metal did not make a really massive change in civilization for well over 1,500 years. It was what Leslie White of the University of Michigan calls the “Fuel Revolution” that brought the metals into their own. Coal, oil, and gas, new sources of energy, combined with the invention of the steam and combustion engines, ushered in the new age. It was not metals as tools, but metals combined with heat in new furnaces and power machinery that took human society off its thousand-year plateau and made possible another enormous upswing in human numbers, with all the social repercussions.

    Today the flames grow hotter in the furnaces. Man has come far up the heat ladder. The creature that crept furred through the glitter of blue glacial nights lives surrounded by the hiss of steam, the roar of engines, and the bubbling of vats. Like a long-armed crab, he manipulates the tongs in dangerous atomic furnaces. In asbestos suits he plunges into the flaming debris of hideous accidents. With intricate heat-measuring instruments he investigates the secrets of the stars, and he has already found heat-resistant alloys that have enabled him to hurl himself into space.

    How far will he go? Three hundred years of the scientific method have built the great sky-touching buildings and nourished the incalculable fertility of the human species. But man is also Homo duplex, as they knew in the darker ages. He partakes of evil and of good, of god and of man. Both struggle in him perpetually. And he is himself a flame — a great, roaring, wasteful furnace devouring irreplaceable substances of the earth. Before this century is out, either Homo duplex must learn that knowledge without greatness of spirit is not enough for man, or there will remain only his calcined cities and the little charcoal of his bones.

    One cliche, and barely, then utterly undermined int he following sentence. I know you can see it, Alex. Can Pinker?

    Today the flames grow hotter in the furnaces. Man has come far up the heat ladder.

    Compare that to his examples. LE’s science may be outdated b half a century but his writing makes him one of the 5 or 6 best published writers in 20th C English. His prose pwns his poetry, in fact.

    I suggest you email Pinker w this review. His email can be found online, or, if not, I can give you it.

    Maybe he’ll dialogue w you in ways a Jonathan Rosenbaum fears to.

  2. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

    I’d consider Dawkins a lesser prose writer than Pinker, partly because his best books are behind him, while Pinker’s foray into this “Style” manual seems more like a side-step rather than his new direction.

    And although Pinker tends to apply “classic style” more to nonfiction writing, he DOES argue for its application (at least in part) to fiction, as well. The problem is that great prose often transcends genre. So, with the Eiseley quote, this can come from a pure science book, or a philosophical hybrid, or something else entirely… And the particular aesthetic won’t matter, in the end, as long as the writing itself is great.

    I did not see a single example of great writing offered by Pinker, and in fact the best writing in the book came from Pinker, himself.

  3. Dan Schneider

    Bad reviews like that UK tripe don’t help. Seems like classic overreach out of one’s purview. I thought of Spoonerisms, wherein sounds are inverted accidentally- i.e.- if I’m pissed at you and say ‘duck my sick.’ Perhaps the desire for quality writing, but an inability to recognize it might be a Pinkerism?

    Re: Dawkins- a perfect example of ‘twee’ writing. By adding the grains in the sand metaphor, it actually calls attention to, and exacerbates the cliche, making it worse. You see this all the time in overmodified MFA writing. They teach it in the mills, by exhorting that clear, declarative phrases need to be ‘unpacked.’

    Dawkins is a blowhard, though, and I’m actually glad I never got to interview him, with all his obsessive atheism. I’d’ve had to destroy him.

  4. Dan Schneider

    The Leddy article is terrible. He chides Pinker for fl;aws that his VERY article then uses. Every English teacher I, or anyone I’ve bothered to ask, told me not to split infinitives. Leddy asks as if the fact that a nameless army of prescriptvists do not represent authority is not so; just because they didn’t have a manual. He also cherrypicks Strunk and Elements in deceptive ways.

    Yours is a vastly superior piece. Yo may wanna write Pinker again and ask him to compare the two points and articles.

    1. Michael Leddy

      Dan, I wish you’d left your objection where I would have seen it (or where I would have seen it in a more timely way). The prohibition of the split infinitive is a good example of a bogus rule. Bryan Garner: “Although few armchair grammarians seem to know it, some split infinitives are regarded as perfectly proper.” I stand by what I wrote: “The trouble with Pinker’s arguments is that again and again they oppose prohibitions and taboos that no reputable authority endorses.”

      Teachers tell students all sorts of things: that it’s wrong to begin a sentence with and or but, wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, wrong to end a sentence with it. (Really.) And other teachers, at least sometimes, end up undoing that sort that misinstruction later on.

  5. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

    I pointed out something similar in an e-mail to Leddy: that Pinker’s main flaw in the grammatical portion of the book is that he calls the ‘don’t-split-infinitives’ crowd experts or recognized authorities, when in fact we’re merely dealing with a vast tradition that stays alive *despite* the criticism that’s been lobbed against it. In effect, there’s not much difference between the two, even as Pinker tends to mis-characterize both.

    I already e-mailed Pinker 2-3 times, so I don’t think he’s interested.

  6. Ahmed

    Thank you for this incredible essay! I am a college student and I often face many problems when it comes to writing. You delineate the issues that are avoided by established institutions and the teachers, much less explained in such precise and solid manner. I opted for many guides but they were of little to no help. Whatever I try to write is either too clunky or self-conscious, be it fiction or essays. I do practice now and then but that’s just it! What methods do you think I should go for so as not to delve into clichés? I’ll really grateful if you could give me an advice on that. Thanks again!

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      Thanks, Ahmed.

      The BEST thing you can do for your writing (especially when you’re young) is to actually *read* great writing, and see what you can replicate in your own way. Cliches, for example, are an almost wholly numerical thing- it’s a cliche because it’s been said/written too many times, in the same way, whether in literature, newspapers, TV, etc. You can only avoid cliches if you can recognize them, which means reading widely.

      You can also Google them, obviously, as there are many websites with cliche lists. In fact, try it as an exercise…find a bunch of cliches, then invert them, somehow, so that they are no longer cliches. Here is an example from my latest novel- a character who the narrator hints at having had lots of negative experiences is asleep after a frustrating argument. The narrator comes up to her, and feels her face. He comments that it was “wet with years”. Obviously, the more predictable phrase is “wet with tears”, which, if not a cliche, is a near-cliche, and has little punch. Yet “wet with years” takes a familiar word, finds a different one that sounds alike, sticks it in, and reverberates given what the reader knows of the character’s history. It is both logical and poet and ‘sticks’.

      So, try that, yourself, and feel free to e-mail me if there’s something you’d like to share.

      Besides that, read, like I said. I’d really recommend Irwin Shaw’s “Five Decades” (his collected stories); get a cheap hardbound copy from Amazon. Nearly every story is really good to great, and despite being a ‘simple’ writer, stylistically, Shaw knows exactly what to put in, what to leave out, and has great control of dialogue. I don’t know what you know of classics, but obviously stuff like “Moby-Dick”, “Huck Finn”, “Grapes of Wrath”, “Native Son”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains Of The Day” (from the 1980s- so, much more contemporary), Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha”, Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage”, William Kennedy’s “Legs” are all excellent starting-points for seeing what works. If I’d narrow it down to a few, do Irwin Shaw, “Remains Of The Day”, “Siddhartha” and “Moby-Dick” since they’re all really different in style and content yet have the common denominator of being great writing. See the links between disparate works…what ALL good writing does, not merely what ‘a’ book does well, since that will build your instinctive foundation for seeing/feeling. Hopefully, then, you can start articulating the reasons for your recognition.

      I recall it was when I was 22 and having just finished a couple of great novels alongside a bunch of really bad ones, I saw precisely why some things worked and others didn’t. Then I started to cement my findings by explicitly writing about them.

  7. Ahmed

    Thanks a lot for your wonderful response. I read quite a lot but haven’t read those classics unfortunatey except Hesse but then again those books were Demain and Steppenwolf. I haven’t even heard about Shaw, but I am certainly reading him along with your other recommendations. And that inversion of cliche totally elated me! I see how it can keep writing from plummeting into banality. I recently finished Mrs Dalloway and Snow Country, but found the former dull and pedantic and latter quite affecting, despite Kawabata’s quite underadorned and understated style.

    Thank you also for opportunity to share, I don’t think I have anything worthwhile in store, but I will make sure to avail of it!

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      Steppenwolf is a crazy one to start with. I suggest you return to it when you’ve read more, as it’s likely Hesse’s best work but also the most dense.

      Virginia Woolf sucks, man. There’s no way around it. Maybe the worst thing she ever wrote was an essay where, self-consciously (and allegedly) under the pretext of finding a pencil, she goes ambling about the city, described in paragraph-long sentences that do absolutely nothing. This is one of the reasons it’s so bad that Herman Melville was rejected for about 70-80 years before he was celebrated. Had “Moby Dick” entered the public consciousness in 1851, as was only right, I bet you that some of the worst excesses of literature would have NEVER happened. Shit like Virginia Woolf, the bad parts of Joyce…none of it would have been necessary, since the premier fictional experiment up until that point in history would have been the beacon, rather than confusion. Likewise, had Walt Whitman NOT been around, I suspect the early 1900s flowering in poetry would have never happened.

      If you’d like to read a couple of my books, feel free to send me an e-mail and I’ll attach them for you. I put in practice the stuff I discuss in this article.

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      No. If you have talent you have talent. The best thing you can do at your age is read as much as you can, try to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and start trying your hand at writing. At 22, I wrote a few articles and had a couple of poems, but NEVER thought I’d be able to write a novel. Two years later, I did precisely that, and was quite happy with the result.

      You might also spend a decade writing nothing of note. Then you could hit your 30s, like Robinson Jeffers, and suddenly start writing great poems that don’t abet until you’re dead. Who knows.

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