Peter Gelfan'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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really liked it

I have always been a big fan of Steven Pinker’s mind, knowledge, and energy to inform the world. But I haven’t particularly enjoyed his writing. So I was intrigued to read his new book on that very subject.

His big ideas, about classic style and the major cognitive barriers that lead writers into murky, mind-numbing prose, will be very helpful to any writer or editor. His schematic analysis of syntax as structural trees is far more accurate and useful than old-school sentence diagramming.

Then he takes a close look at the niceties of “correct” prose. I suspect that many writers and editors already use a lot of the principles he lays out, but with a niggling sense that what we sometimes do for the sake of good communication is bad form, which better writers and editors could find a way around without riling the clear stream of images and ideas. Pinker points out that the clear stream of images and ideas—clarity and grace—is the highest virtue in writing. He differentiates between the “rules” that serve clarity and grace and those that stem from someone’s arbitrary ideas about what constitutes proper English.

He also points out that one still needs to know the pro-forma rules in order to avoid stepping on the wrong toes. In principle, a split infinitive may be just fine, but you probably don’t want to toss one into your job application for high school English teacher or copyeditor at a snooty press.

How useful would this book be to writers and editors? The answer is probably a distribution curve ranging from mind-blowingly vital to ho-hum. To put it another way, if good writing—yours or others’—plays an important part in your life, you can’t afford to assume you’re too damn good to learn anything from Pinker.

Did I enjoy reading his book? I would say that he learned a lot from his own work in this field. The book was mostly clear, graceful, lively, conversational, and witty. Now and then, I encountered remnants of what I objected to in some of his earlier books, mostly repetition and belaboring a point, but not a lot of them. It’s a good read.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
December 26, 2014 – Shelved

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