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

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
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it was amazing
bookshelves: linguistics, nonfiction

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 dreamed up for the heck of it.

Pinker shows how many writers fall into a wide range of traps. The chief trap is the curse of knowledge. This occurs when a writer assumes that his reader knows as much as himself. Some people believe that opaque writing is a deliberate choice. Pseudo-intellectuals often dress up their writings with "highfalutin gobbledygook, as shown in this cartoon: But even sincere, intelligent writers can overestimate their readers' knowledge, and this leads to lots of wasted effort.

Pinker discusses the old-fashioned technique of diagramming a sentence. This technique used to be taught in schools, but he shows that the technique is not the best. He introduces a tree technique that focuses not on the parts of speech, but on the internal structure of a sentence and the relationships between its components. The focus is more on clarity, rather than on grammar.

Pinker also puts great stock on the quality of coherence. Do sentences fit together, with one leading logically to the next? Are relationships between ideas written clearly, or are they muddled with sloppy organization? Pinker shows how a writer can organize his ideas and make the reader's job easier.

I learned some fascinating stuff. People confuse the "past tense" with "past time." For example, I learned that the past tense of the words can, will, may, and shall, are could, would, might, and should. Pinker makes it clear when to use one of these words rather than the other. Some rules, like forbidding the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence, or splitting infinitives with an adverb, are simply superstitions. The choice of where to place a preposition, or when to split an infinitive, should depend on clarity and not on someone's say-so.

Throughout the book, there are side-by-side comparisons between sentences showing two options. The version on the left is usually ungrammatical or unclear, while the corrected version on the right is generally a better example. Pinker discusses the reasons why one alternative is better than the other, and the reasons have nothing to do with blindly following rules; the reasons always explain why one version is clearer or more easily understood.

If you are a writer, then you will want to read this book. If you are not a writer, but simply curious about language--as I am--then this book can also feed your curiosity. Highly recommended!
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 31, 2014 – Finished Reading
November 1, 2014 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Qarla (new) - added it

Qarla Diokno I already purchased the book on my Kindle and your comment got me excited to read it. Thanks!


message 2: by David (last edited Feb 19, 2016 04:50AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David You are welcome, Qarla.

By the way, since you like typography and science fiction, here is a book for you:
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Well, it's not exactly science fiction--it is more like fantasy. But typography is central to the underlying mystery.


message 3: by Qarla (new) - added it

Qarla Diokno Thanks again! I've added your recommendation to my list! Ah! The backlog!


message 4: by Quo (new)

Quo One of the more interesting passages in Steven Pinker's book is the listing of perhaps 5 appraisals that the English language is not involved in a process of evolution but one of great, irreversible decline, with some of the commentaries written 2 centuries or more ago. A friend & former editor at Macmillan of Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" used to chuckle about his correspondence with E.B. White, all via rather formal letters in those days, when the occasional revisions of the "Little Book" were being prepared. I think that Prof. Pinker asks for a sense of balance, linguistic accuracy but without extreme rigidity.


David Very interesting, Quo!


message 6: by Carlybaby (new)

Carlybaby Thank you for your recommendation! Couldn’t agree more. I’m reading the Sense of Style now, impressed by the author’s humor and writing coherence. The simple but effective writing style is honed by his practice. And his The language Instinct is the créme de la créme.


David I agree with you, Carly. The Language Instinct was great!


message 8: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Otin Thanks for this review David. I’ve been looking for this type of book for a while. Most of the books about writing that I’ve found want to help me make money from writing, yet what I want to do is gain insights on how to write better. I think there is a difference and I hope to find it in this book.


David You are welcome, Joe!


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