He’s Not Wrong

Review: Steven Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style’

October 25, 2014

Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style is a maddening book, much the way doctoral students are maddening. At once a style guide, a work of aesthetics, and an overeducated explanation of writing precepts that many unwashed composition teachers nationwide already understand, it is a book sometimes too smart to get out of its own way.

The book’s strengths are evident. Its six chapters use Pinker’s expertise in cognitive psychology and linguistics to demystify and to articulate how writing, both good and bad, gets written. Pinker advocates a "classic style" grounded in the visual and attentive to the action-based, cause-and-effect relations of stories. Such writing avoids the Puritanical parsimony enforced by numerous editors, professors, and grammar purists, a tight-fisted approach to language that often leaves the writer feeling penny-wise, the reader pound-foolish. It strengthens conceptual links between parts of a sentence, earns trust with its directness, and explains abstractions by finding fresh images to illustrate them. Classic style is, as Pinker notes, "congenial to the world view of the scientist."

Pinker’s scientific expertise yields interesting explanations for where and why our writing goes wrong, as in his discussion of how the clunky noun phrases and strings of prepositions that typify bad prose are tied to the mental process of "chunking," or concreting data into manageable blocks of information. For an academic, Pinker is often delightfully lucid and personable, with a flexible, adaptive approach to writing style. Eschewing the trussed-up dogmatism of many contemporary guides, Pinker warns against "the putative rule [that] confuse(s) grammar with formality" and helps understand the difference between ungrammatical writing (which impedes meaning) and unconventional writing (which may be more or less effective in different contexts, but which can nevertheless be understood).

Pinker also proves a tasteful, appreciative, and creative reader of other authors’ prose. Using a passage from a newspaper column on bird-watching to discuss the judicious application of passive voice, Pinker playfully grants the much-maligned passive a moment of activity: "Though the heron is merely being observed by an unobserved birdwatcher at this point in the passage, the passive voice keeps it in the reader’s spotlight of attention."

Readers looking to Pinker’s book as a style guide, à la The Elements of Style, may find it unwieldy overall, but useful at moments, particularly in the final chapter. Here, Pinker explores misconceptions about the ‘rules’ of English, many of which, like the rule against split infinitives, are historical accidents or personal biases that some grammar purists prescribe as commandments. Yet Pinker is no bleeding-heart descriptivist, accepting whatever neologism or grammatical rewiring comes his way; rather, he demonstrates how transformed language can still make sense, yet will prove more or less effective depending on its cultural context. This chapter does not offer specific templates for writing, as a conventional style manual might, but it does guide the reader through the murky waters of these issues.

With so many strengths, then, what is the problem with The Sense of Style? Like a hog who can’t grasp that other animals don’t love the mudbath, Pinker often wallows too long in his discussions of linguistics, particularly in the fourth chapter, an informed but wearying treatment of Noam Chomsky’s "deep structure," which Pinker uses ponderously to explain such common writing errors as the confusion of who and whom. (Here’s the error, in three words: nominative / accusative confusion.) Pinker’s writing advice, which he often treats as the miracle by-product of cognitive science research, is generally the tried-and-true wisdom of many college writing instructors: seek a second reader’s feedback, step away from your writing to see it afresh, read it aloud, use paragraph breaks "to give the reader’s eyes a place to alight and rest."

Like many a doctoral student, Pinker cherry-picks evidence in order to deride entire disciplines for bad prose, or else to puff up writers and thinkers he admires, going so far as to parse and praise a passage from a novel by his wife, Rebecca Goldstein ("the speaker is a professor who has recently achieved professional and romantic fulfillment," notes Pinker, in a moment of telling ambiguity). And, finally, when nothing suitable is ready to hand, Pinker invents evidence that, unsurprisingly, supports his points, analyzing several passages he identifies as doctored-up pastiches, and a few more he doesn’t even bother to cite.

The Sense of Style is maddening because for every instance of intellectual boorishness, there is another of genial lucidity. In an early chapter, Pinker observes: "The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows." He writes, not unsympathetically, of how experts come to overestimate the common understanding of their jargon: "As we settle in to the clique, it becomes our universe." And he warns that "one should not confuse clarity with condescension."

How much old-fashioned wisdom lies in these remarks! So different from the technological new-fangledness that follows in the next chapter: "Once again, it’s good cognitive psychology: people learn by integrating new information into their existing web of knowledge. They don’t like it when a fact is hurled at them from out of the blue and they have to keep it levitating in short-term memory until they find a relevant background to embed it in a few moments later."

At its best, the ‘sense’ in The Sense of Style refers to common sense, and at these moments, Steven Pinker, the thoughtful amateur, deserves praise for insights and instructions that are not bound up with any one expert discourse, but can be used by writers in any field, of any status, on any occasion. Pinker, like many a doctoral student, often operates at his best.

Often, but not always. There are moments when the ‘sense’ in The Sense of Style refers to faculties of the mind, and then, Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist, takes over. And it’s at moments like these that I’m reminded of a scene in The Big Lebowski, when The Dude says to his trigger-happy bowling partner, Walter Sobchak, "You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole."

Temple Cone is an associate professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Published under: Book reviews