Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Sense of Style

I've been rereading THE SENSE OF STYLE, by Steven Pinker, published in 2014. The lucid and witty cognitive scientist Pinker, one of my favorite nonfiction authors, explores the question of what constitutes good writing by connecting grammar and style with the way the brain handles language. He begins by reminding us, “Complaints about the decline of language go at least as far back as the invention of the printing press.” Contemporary writing isn’t uniquely dreadful, regardless of complaints about what the Internet and texting have done to the thought processes of today’s youth. He analyzes several passages of nonfiction to unpack why they’re effective (and, in one case, to uncover weaknesses in the style and strategy of the writer). Although he concentrates on nonfiction, his detailed explanations of why and how these prose samples work would be illuminating for fiction authors, too.

With the help of sentence “tree” diagrams, he demonstrates why the brain finds some sentences easier to comprehend and others difficult. I must confess I had trouble following the trees (the old-fashioned sentence-diagramming method I grew up with makes more intuitive sense to me, probably just because I'm used to it), but visually oriented readers may find them helpful. Pinker shows us what kinds of structures create coherence in sentences and paragraphs. He explains the problems that make for incoherent writing, especially the “curse of knowledge,” his term for what happens when a writer assumes the audience shares his or her background and degree of expertise in the subject matter. Speaking of “his or her,” Pinker tackles the issue of gender-neutral pronouns and defends the use of “they” for that purpose. He illuminates the proper uses of punctuation, especially commas. In the final chapter, “Telling Right from Wrong,” he works through a long list of “errors” condemned by purists and offers his rationale for why each “rule” is or isn’t justified. Though I don’t agree with all his conclusions (e.g., “lay” and “lie” are not and will never be the same verb, and the former should not be substituted for the latter except in passages of dialogue; "between you and I" is an abomination against nature; he tolerates dangling participles to a degree that I can't accept), I found the entire book entertaining and informative. His distinctions between grammatical vs. ungrammatical and formal vs. informal strike me as refreshingly sensible, even if I don't agree with him on where to draw the line in every case.

He makes short work of the grammatical superstitions that forbid splitting infinitives, starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions (e.g., "and" or "but"), and ending sentences with prepositions. I enjoyed and learned from his analyses of many other groundless prohibitions whose invalidity is less obvious. I wish he had also addressed a baffling fetish one of my former editors held—she insisted inanimate nouns couldn't have possessive forms. Say what? "A midsummer night's dream"; "the Church's one foundation"; "the dawn's early light"; "the twilight's last gleaming"; "New Year's Eve"? If there was ever a pointless "rule" that could generate awkward, wordy sentences through attempts to "correct" the "errors," that's one.

He brings up one problem, related to the "curse of knowledge," that frequently trips me up: Writers often string together phrases and clauses in the order they spontaneously come to mind instead of the order that facilitates smooth reader comprehension. In self-editing, one of the first things I usually have to fix is the bad effect of this stream-of-consciousness writing on my sentences. While I was dimly aware of this weakness, his explanation highlighted and clarified it for me.

I won't claim this will be the last style manual you'll ever need; he doesn't aim to cover every possible stylistic and grammatical pitfall. However, I think any writer would benefit from this book and find it a pleasure to read. Besides its useful content, A SENSE OF STYLE functions as an example of elegant writing in its own right.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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