Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Steven Pinker is not only a Harvard professor and the renowned writer of numerous books and monographs on the workings of the mind, he is the chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary — and that should demonstrate his chops to write a book on writing style, or at the very least about correct usage, or maybe what it means to write about “correct” usage. And this book, The Sense of Style, is such a book, and in my opinion, a very good one.
The basic thesis of the book turns upon the intellectual war between the purists, or “prescriptivists” (who advocate adherence to the way English should be written) and the “descriptivists” (who claim language is “organic” and should reflect actual use). Pinker’s approach, which is hard to quibble with [with which it is hard to quibble (???)] to determining what is right, is to look at what well-respected writers actually do in practice. Split an infinitive? – sure, if it enhances clarity. In the words of the Merriam Webster Unabridged Dictionary:
“Even though there has never been a rational basis for objecting to the split infinitive, the subject has become a fixture of folk belief about grammar….Modern commentators…usually say it’s all right to split an infinitive in the interest of clarity. Since clarity is the usual reason for splitting, this advice means merely that you can split them whenever you need to.”
[And yes, that quote ends a sentence with a preposition….]
Pinker issues the caveat that endeavoring to achieve clarity should not come at the expense of grace and beauty: “language ought to be a source of pleasure.”
He doesn’t always follow his own advice, however. For example, he actually defends Bill Clinton’s misuse of the nominative pronoun in his statement, “Give Al Gore and I a chance….” (Elsewhere, he decries awkward-sounding use of the predicative nominative case, such as lamenting “Woe is I” instead of “Woe is Me.” Could Pinker’s politics be influencing his grammar preferences?)
In general, though, his approach to correct diction is fairly permissive. For instance, he tolerates aggravate for “annoy” and healthy for “healthful.” He even says that the use of “hopefully” as a full sentence modifying adverb is just a newer usage that follows in the tracks of candidly, frankly, and mercifully. He may be right, but, “Hopefully, it will stop raining,” still sounds like an abomination to me.
On the other hand, Pinker is quite critical of misusing words that sound like related but distinct words, such as credible for credulous, flaunt for flout, and fortuitous for fortunate. And he probably fights against insuperable odds by insisting that data is the plural form of datum and that a parameter is a variable but not a boundary condition.
The real thrust of the book is not just a series of dos and don’ts. It is a paean to what he calls the Classic Style, an orderly way of writing in which the author remains aware of what the reader is likely to know and not know and is sensitive to the respective roles of syntax and prosody in conveying meaning.
Evaluation: Pinker has written extensively on how the mind works, and his advice here is directed at showing writers how to structure sentences and paragraphs to be more easily ingested, digested, and understood. This is not a dry vademecum however, by any means. The author has included many humorous quotes and observations, and I found myself frequently laughing out loud.
I highly recommend this book for all aspiring authors, as well as those who enjoy both literature and literacy.
Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014