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The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  6,708 ratings  ·  835 reviews
A short and entertaining book on the modern art of writing well by New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker
Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care?

In The Sense of Style, the bestselling linguist and cogn
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published September 30th 2014 by Viking (first published September 4th 2014)
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Derek I found this on, under the entry 'Ain't': "1706, originally a contraction of am not, and in proper use with that sense until it be…moreI found this on, under the entry 'Ain't': "1706, originally a contraction of am not, and in proper use with that sense until it began to be used as a generic contraction for are not, is not, etc., in early 19c. Cockney dialect of London; popularized by representations of this in Dickens, etc., which led to the word being banished from correct English."

This entry is interesting for two reasons. (1) It shows the way in which popular literature can inform the evolution of the language, and (2) it suggests that perhaps 'ain't' is more correct than 'aren't' when used in sentences such as "Ain't I clever" vs. "Aren't I clever", although the latter sounds better to the ear.(less)
Atlas Publishing In addition, writing "the king Thebes" is technically incorrect, because by excluding the preposition "of" from the construction, you are effectively …moreIn addition, writing "the king Thebes" is technically incorrect, because by excluding the preposition "of" from the construction, you are effectively writing that the king's name is "Thebes," not that he is the ruler of Thebes. "Of" tells the reader that the word that comes next will be a noun that functions with "of" as an adjective rather than as an appositive reference to the original subject, "king."(less)

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Nov 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I have enjoyed every one of Steven Pinker's books, and this one is no exception. Pinker writes engagingly, with humor, with intelligence, and with authority. He is the chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, so he has useful insights into how the English language is being used in print. As a linguist, he not only knows all the "rules" of writing, he understands the logic (or illogic) behind them. Moreover, he understands which "rules" are real, and which ones were just drea ...more
Apr 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was thoroughly charmed by this well-written guide on how to write better. :)

Maybe it's because real language changes. Maybe it's because true clarity comes from the spaces between the words and not absolutely from the rules about the words.

But that's not to say that this cogent discussion on grammar isn't rife with practical examples and great reflection, because it does. It just happens to bring up the fact that one generation's Haberdash is another's charming fireside chat. Moreover, it use
Sep 01, 2014 rated it liked it
It started well. Your brain will finish the rest of that sentence.

Or so Steven Pinker explains. The best way to describe this book is as a style guide that relies on neuroscience. Instead of admonishments based on grammar, old rules, and urban myths, Pinker explains the best way to write based on how our brain understand words on a page. Which makes this one of the more readable style guides out there in that it has a purpose instead of just being a list of literary taboos.

But the list of taboos
Apr 12, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: writing
Chapter 1 summary:

1. Insist on fresh wording and concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary.
2. Pay attention to the readers' vantage point and the target of their gaze.
3. Use the judicious placement of an uncommon word or idiom against a backdrop of simple nouns and verbs.
4. Use parallel syntax.
5. Have an occasional planned surprise.
6. Present a telling detail that obviates an explicit pronouncement.
7. Use meter and sound that resonates with the meaning and mood.

Roy Lotz
Nov 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
I’ve long admired Pinker’s poise with the pen. Both The Blank Slate and The Language Instinct (the two books of his I’d before read) are, in my opinion at least, conspicuously well-written. Popular science is, contrary to what one might expect, a difficult genre; the writer must take complex ideas from esoteric subjects—ideas usually mired in technical terminology—and release them from their provincial prisons. Added to this complicated task of exegesis, the writer of popular science must also w ...more
Steven Pinker has created a writer's guide that is interesting, useful, amusing, and also frustrating.

I enjoyed the first part of this book, but the middle section got bogged down in parsing sentences and grammar exercises. I put the book down and took a week-long break from it, and debated whether to pick it up again. I finally did finish, but it was a slog.

My big takeaways from this book were 1) language is constantly changing, and the English language is so inventive that when the grammar po
Amir Tesla
Nov 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Superb book on writing.
David Huff
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Having just embarked on a fairly intensive writing course, I asked my mentor for some recommendations of books on the craft of writing. This book, "The Sense of Style" was at the top of his list, and I can see why.

The author, Steven Pinker, is a Psychology professor at Harvard, and has also done much research on language and cognition (he's described as a Cognitive Scientist). Further, he is chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary. And it shows. All of it. He has written a v
* Originally reviewed on the Night Owls Press blog here. *

Heads-up, editors. In The Sense of Style, author Steven Pinker challenges every authoritarian grammarian and language purist who has held sway over the rules of the English language with their dogmatic style books.

A psycholinguist by profession, Pinker is a scholar of the science of language. So it's no surprise that The Sense of Style feels like a modern alternative to the classic but tired guides of Strunk and White and others. In my d
Nov 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A great book on the considerations for writing non-fiction.
This book was written with the amazing style of Pinker's usual writings and it was about that style and practical advice to improve one's writings. I am implementing the lessons I've learned from pinker in my writing process for my blog. And it improved my effectiveness to a great degree.
It is worth knowing that most advice on the book contains pretty solid arguments for them. So you can use the arguments to find ways to improve writing
♥ Ibrahim ♥
Nov 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, writing
This book was recommended to me by Professor Geoff Pullum, a grammarian of the highest caliber. I asked him for a book to recommend instead of Strunk & White that he, within good reason frowns upon. It is such a relief to know that we don't need a rigid book of style in order to be good writers. We need a "sense" of style instead, that sense that helps me to cook Egyptian rice like no other, as the women of Egypt would call it "el-nafas", that is, the "breath". Pinker is a genius and whatever he ...more
Thomas Edmund
May 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I love Pinker, and I love writing, so this really was the book for me. It was denser than I expected, and I thus I wouldn't recommend it for any looking for a light read in writing.

The focus is more on academic non-fiction than other forms of non-fiction or fiction, but offers generally timeless advice about style and clarity. Pinker strikes a good balance between useful rules and avoiding pedantry. He occasionally breaks his own advice by overusing his large and eccentric vocabulary, but its al
Aug 21, 2014 rated it liked it
Thanks to a Goodreads Firstreads giveaway, I had a chance to read an advanced copy of Pinker's Sense of Style. My thoughts on the book are a bit mixed. Here goes:

The Good:
--Well, let's be honest--I just read a stylebook cover to cover; it must have SOMETHING going for it!
--I found Pinker's wit to be on full display here, and that was a welcome addition to what can sometimes become dry material (i.e., talk of grammar). Pinker's wit is at its best when he slyly breaks all the grammar rules he's di
Jan 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: us, writing-guides
What I expect from a writing guide is either a comprehensive reference book where I can easily find answers to my questions, or - much more valued - explanations so memorable that my writing - or my students' writing - is changed forever. (Sin Boldly!: Dr. Dave's Guide To Writing The College Paper worked quite well this year; in one case, the shock of reading the Torah was so strong that a student of mine started to write clearly, because he understood that communicating ideas is the key to good ...more

Being irrational may pay off, sometimes:



Pinker should be analyzing the little texts ahead

Oct 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

The Sense of Style is a scholarly and witty book on the art of writing well. Bestselling author, linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker provides readers with a new writing-guide for the twenty-first century. He breaks down grammar rules and challenges purists on the best use of language. This challenging 368-page book includes the following six chapters: 1. Good Writing, 2. A Window onto the Wo
Б. Ачболд
Mar 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
The single most helpful book on writing (nonfiction, mainly) I have read. If you write in Mongolian (or any other language), this will help too.

Chapter 1: How to learn from good prose. B
Chapter 2: How to write in the "classical style." (Pinker will explain what that is.) A
Chapter 3: "The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it's like for someone else not to know something that you know." B
Chapter 4: On syntax. Makes grammar interesting and very helpful. A
Oct 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
What an enjoyable book. Charles McGrath in the Times: "In general [Pinker] takes the view that if a phrase or construction sounds O.K., it probably is, and that many of the mistakes the purists get so worked up over — using 'like' with a clause, for example — have been made for hundreds of years by writers like Shakespeare." I knew this about Pinker from reading The Language Instinct: he is no purist or prescriptivist of proper English. McGrath feigns surprise and annoyance that Pinker can write ...more
Jul 18, 2014 rated it liked it
I started out reading this book as I thought it was intended: a style manual for the modern day writer. I ended up equating it more to a textbook and reference guide for the modern day writer. I can easily see this book being required for college level courses. It is deep into sentence structure,and the entire last chapter is fantastic for reference.
I liked his approach of writing so that one's brain has the most effective cognitive response to what it's reading. There were moments when I admit
Jimmy Ele
Jan 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
A very arrogant sounding title, lol. However, the title will make more sense after you read the book.

This book is written for anyone who wants to put their thoughts down to paper in a coherent way and not be laughed at by the intelligentsia. It is a funny book that makes fun of grammar nazis while vying for supremacy as the ultimate grammar nazi.

Steven Pinker has written many great books. Some of his books have converging ideas that merge into one another in different ways. This book is one of
John Jaksich
Nov 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Pinker's book should be on every writer's shelf. In a mere 300 pages, he successfully expounds upon what it means to be a good writer. It stands alongside Strunk & White's short guide as what one needs to refer to as a guide. I plan to use it as a desk reference and it should be read more than once. I wholly recommend it. ...more
Jan 03, 2015 rated it it was ok
Earthshattering it is not. Some good cartoons, though.
Simon Haisell
Writing well ain't easy.

“Unfortunately for cosmic justice, many gifted writers are scoundrels, and many inept ones are the salt of the earth.”

Good writing is hard to write. This isn't because there are so many grammar rules to learn and words to understand. There are rules, but not as many as pedants and purists would like. There are a lot of words. Over a million. But you'll do just fine with a mere 20,000.

The difficulty is one of judgement. The sense of style, as Pinker describes it. Once we h
Dec 27, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps a book on how to write by a scientist who studies neurology and linguistics and how they interact seems odd, but it’s right up Pinker’s street. He loves to think about language and the way it evolved, and what is natural for our brains when it comes to language. While he does go into the rules of grammar and the parts of speech and all of that, he tempers it with an understanding of why we make the kinds of mistakes we do, and when it might be time to let go and surrender to the fact tha ...more
Erik Hoel
Nov 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
I loved Pinker's exposition of classic style, his highly intelligent take on grammar, his take-downs of stuffy, often made-up or nonsensical grammar rules, and his overall use of vision as a guiding metaphor for good classic-style writing.

This is a must read for anyone publishing today, or anyone who hopes to publish.

So why not 5 stars? There is a section in which Pinker attempts to diagnose the fundamental cause of so much bad, obfuscating writing, especially that done in academia. His diagnos
Pinker has a contagious love of language and is that rare teacher who actually seems to practice what he preaches. His humor and the wonderful examples/anecdotes he employs throughout the book made it both an enjoyable (for the most part) and memorable read.

The first three chapters, centered mostly around what good writing does and how it does this, had me so enamored I thought this might be my new favorite book on writing (I enjoy reading about writing almost as much as I enjoy actually writing
Jennifer Hughes
Aug 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: work-reads
As I remarked at our work book club, any style guide that includes comics to illustrate points can't be bad! Steven Pinker gives some much-needed, common-sense relief to the seriousness of typical style guides. His prose was honestly a bit long-winded, and it was a slog when I tried to read it straight through, but when I started skimming, I felt like I was able to really absorb things and enjoy the ride.

Pinker's usage charts/lists in the last chapter were really handy, and I would love to find
Kara Babcock
Jun 24, 2020 rated it liked it
I thought I would balance out my recent mathematical non-fiction read with a non-fiction read about the English language. Not only did I have one gathering dust on my to-read shelf for years, but it’s one that is just as technical and interested in education as The Math(s) Fix was. So, of course, it took me longer to read too. Also, I was apprehensive regarding Steven Pinker (more on that at the end of the review). Nevertheless, while I wouldn’t say that I’m going to come back to The Sense of St ...more
Temple Cone
Nov 26, 2016 rated it did not like it
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
Aug 27, 2020 marked it as did-not-finish  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1audio, 2non-fiction
Not for me. Pinker's first example of Richard Dawkins' writing was great, but his second was of his wife's & that did nothing for me. It went downhill from there until I found myself drifting off. I finally decided the boring drive was better than the book, so I paused it. I tried it later & again drifted. Well narrated, but just not my thing, so no star rating. I've liked Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, so I'll give other books of his a chance. ...more
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Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging explorations of human nature and its relevance to language, history, morality, politics, and everyday life. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Repu ...more

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