Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Sense of Style

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, one of my favorite nonfiction authors, has previously written several books on language, notably THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, WORDS AND RULES, and THE STUFF OF THOUGHT. I particularly recommend THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, packed with fascinating information in Pinker's lucid, witty style. His newest work, THE SENSE OF STYLE, subtitled "The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century," speaks directly to writers as well as anyone interested in what makes for clear writing and distinguishes good prose from bad. Although he focuses on nonfiction (with many examples, analyzed to reveal their authors' strategies), his advice applies to fiction, too.

He discusses one problem especially relevant to nonfiction writers but a concern of anyone who wants to communicate clearly—the "curse of knowledge." In brief, we tend to assume our audience knows our subject as well, or almost as well, as we do. We may use specialized terms without defining them. We leap between connections plain to us but possibly opaque to many of our readers. "Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it." Another issue Pinker tackles at length is the lack of a gender-neutral animate pronoun in English. "It" certainly won't do as a substitute for "he or she," but (as Pinker clearly illustrates) the use of "he" to cover both genders has become obsolete and doesn't work very well anyway. He defends the much-maligned "they" for persons of unknown gender, whether singular or plural.

By analyzing our comprehension of written prose with reference to the way the human brain processes information, Pinker demonstrates exactly why a sentence or paragraph that seems incoherent has that effect on us. This neuroscience approach helps him to unfold the reasons why some of the revered "rules" of grammar and syntax make sense and others are merely fossilized superstitions. He distinguishes between the rules worth following for their own sake and those writers need to know mainly to appease picky editors. I found the final chapter, "Telling Right from Wrong," the most enjoyable and informative, where he runs down a long list of traditionally "wrong" usages and briefly notes why he considers these prohibitions obsolete. He follows up with a shorter list of distinctions in word usages that he thinks ARE worth keeping. I don't agree with all his recommendations (I'll never accept the phrase "between you and I" or the verb "lay" as synonymous with "lie," except in dialogue), but he always makes his points in persuasive and entertaining ways.

He also illustrates the text with cartoons from a variety of sources, from "Doonesbury" and "Shoe" to the WASHINGTON POST. Recommended for all writers and grammar geeks!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment