Science behind good writing

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Steven Pinker
Allen Lane; £20


EVERY generation believes “that kids today are degrading the language and taking civilisation down with it”. This can be traced all the way back to ancient Sumerian clay tablets, some of which “include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young”. Yet in Stephen Pinker’s opinion it is the professionals and not the “tweeting teenagers” whose work is frequently unreadable. Peruse a legal document or one of the more obfuscating examples of academic writing out there and one might readily agree.

Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary — a body at once obscure and intimately concerned with how language is used in everyday life — Pinker is a Harvard scholar specialising in psycholinguistics, that being the psychological and neurobiological factors which enable the acquisition, use, and comprehension of language. He is probably best known beyond the academy for The Language of Instinct (1994) and The Stuff of Thought (2007) volumes which, like The Sense of Style, attempt to demystify dry technicalities for the general reader.

Despite its title, however, Pinker’s latest is not simply a style guide in the vein of Strunk and White. It is neither a reference manual on, say, the use of hyphens or capital letters, nor “a remedial guide for badly educated students who have yet to master the elements of a sentence”. Instead The Sense of Style is a book for people who already know how to write and want to write better, those who are “interested in letters and literature and curious about the ways in which the science of the mind can illuminate how language works”.

For Pinker, the use of language is innate, a faculty born of natural selection and honed by the needs of human communication down through the generations. The “conventions of usage are tacit,” he quite rightly tells us; “the rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal of lexicographers but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors”. Writing then is a living, evolving “construction” and Pinker is here to wrestle it back from the rule-crazed “prescriptivists”.

A touch of neuroscience is involved in this process as the author investigates why we communicate the way we do. Diagrammed sentences and the “tangled spaghetti” of looping arrows inside “knowledge webs” dominate the front half of the book but the reader should not fear these. They serve to illustrate Pinker’s theories about “good” writing and their schematic approach, totally at odds with the more intuitive manner by which composition is often thought to occur, certainly has its value.

By investigating the difference between “right” and “wrong” modes of expression in this way, Pinker offers the reader an amusing history of “spurious rules”. He cautions against being “too logical” (spelling lose as loose, for example, “which would make it follow the pattern in choose”) and being afraid to begin a sentence with a conjunction (“whatever the pedagogical merits may be of feeding children misinformation, it is inappropriate for adults”).

He is also happy to ignore “the quintessential bogus rule” prohibiting split infinitives and backs up this position with evidence that there is, in fact, no grammatical basis for rejecting them. It is merely one of several holdovers from the writing guides of the 17th and 18th centuries, a time when “Latin was considered the ideal language for the expression of thought” and guides to English grammar were written as “steppingstones” to mastery of a language where infinitives such as “to go” are a single word. Thus, says Pinker, Captain Kirk may continue “to boldly go” without fear of linguistic reprimand.

Not that Pinker is accepting of everything. There are plenty of examples here of bad writing which he takes to task in demonstrative fashion. While it is impossible to ignore the fact that some of these are straw men, there are so many straw men to be found in writing today that it is difficult for the author to ignore them. For instance, no one can really argue with the need for a serial comma to clarify Peter Ustinov’s “encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”. Conversely, the “good” writing Pinker praises includes several quotations from his wife, the novelist and historian Rebecca Goldstein. But then, one supposes, there is no style rule against favouritism.

Those questionable inclusions aside, the final and most traditional portion of The Sense of Style provides “a judicious guide to a hundred of the most common issues of grammar, diction, and punctuation”. And yes (sentences beginning with conjunctions are fine, he says), it is this part of the book which will no doubt prove most useful.

Some of Pinker’s advice is obvious — “start strong, not with a cliché” — but other insights — such as the crucial “difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know” — are worth the attention of anyone working in prose.

“Factual diligence”, says Pinker, is always better than the pedantic adherence to the rules, especially when it comes to the issue of clarity.

Indeed, if there is one aspect of poor writing which aggrieves the author it is the kind of ambiguity which requires one to re-read material in order to determine what is actually being said. Does The Sense of Style itself always achieve this? No, not always, but even if the more involved aspects of grammar or linguistics occasionally waterfall past the reader, the book on the whole is informative, stringent when it needs to be, and, for all of that, even fun. It may not make a fully-fledged writer out of a scribbler but it will surely make better writers out of those “who seek a cure for their academese, bureaucrarese, corporatese, legalese, medicalese, or officialise”.

Dr Val Nolan lectures on contemporary literature and creative writing at NUI Galway. His story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ was shortlisted for this year’s Theodore Sturgeon Award.


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