Review of “The Sense of Style” by Steven Pinker

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.

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The basic thesis of the book turns upon the 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.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014

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9 Responses to Review of “The Sense of Style” by Steven Pinker

  1. Bridget says:

    Ooooh I think I’m going to have to read this. I majored in linguistics in college and my prescriptivist/descriptivist tendencies are constantly at war with each other.

    Your stance on “hopefully” is interesting to me because I’ve pretty much only EVER heard it used in the way you dislike; I’ve almost never heard it used in its “correct” usage, i.e., “with a hopeful manner” or however you would choose to actually define it. “Hopefully it’ll stop raining” sounds perfectly fine to me, despite the fact that I know that it’s not *technically* the correct usage. (Fun fact: I was first enlightened to its correct usage in a Baby Sitters Club book, and was totally confused because I had no idea that the way most people used it was incorrect.)

    You might be interested in reading one of my more recent posts, Prescriptive Descriptivism: Or, Why Grammar is Still Important—I think we would have a lot to discuss on that subject. 🙂

    • LaurenLovesYA says:

      Thanks for you comments. I read your post on Prescriptive Descriptivism, and I thought it was superb. You and I would not disagree about much on this topic, except I might be a little harder on black English because it puts so many people at a significant disadvantage in the job market and in academics.

      • Bridget says:

        The problem with saying that AAVE puts people at a disadvantage in the job market and in academics, though, is that it’s kinda racist to assume that just because someone is an AAVE speaker, they are inherently less intelligent/hardworking/well-spoken than a Standard English speaker. Telling an AAVE speaker that they need to speak “proper English” in order to be taken seriously just further stigmatizes what is, in reality, a perfectly linguistically acceptable alternative to Standard English. The biggest reason that I personally promote the use of Standard English grammar in written English is because that’s how a writer will reach the largest number of English-speaking people, assuming that’s her goal. However, if her goal is to reach the AAVE-speaking community specifically, then she should by all means use AAVE—BUT, she should also adhere to the rules inherent to that particular dialect, because, again, it provides credibility and authenticity.

        I don’t have a solution to the issue that other dialects of English are looked down upon other than…don’t? But I think until our current generation is in charge of more things, people will continue to be discriminated against based on how they speak.

        • Bridget, I’m just guessing that the previous commenter did not make that [racist] assumption about AAVE speakers, but was rather opining on the unfortunate frequent reaction to AAVE speakers, given the studies about, e.g., identical resumes with AA-sounding names being rejected in favor of the identical resumes with a Caucasian-sounding name, etc.

          • Bridget says:

            Oh, I totally get that. I apologize if that didn’t come off the way I meant. I was calling the people who assume bad things about AAVE speakers racist, not her for saying that people do that. 🙂

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m not an aspiring author but I probably should read a book like this.

  3. It’s interesting the things that bother different people, linguistically! I always say “data” as a plural, but I’ve let go of fretting over “hopefully,” and someone who truly minded “aggravate” for “annoy” would strike me as very pedantic. And while “credible” for “credulous” would drive me batty, I think that “fortuitous” for “fortunate” has progressed fairly far along the road to accepted usage.

  4. Trisha says:

    I may explore this as a possible text for my composition courses. It would be fun to have a book like this rather than the crap (and it is crap) we typically have to use.

  5. Belle Wong says:

    When I think about ending a sentence with a preposition, I always tend to think of that quote that’s attributed to Churchill, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” 🙂 This book is on my to-read list and I hope to get to it soon.

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