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The Sense of Style
Cover of The Sense of Style
The Sense of Style
The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
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"Charming and erudite," from the author of Enlightenment Now, "The wit and insight and clarity he brings . . . is what makes this book such a gem." —Time.com

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—and why should we care? From the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now.
In this entertaining and eminently practical book, the cognitive scientist, dictionary consultant, and New York Times–bestselling author Steven Pinker rethinks the usage guide for the twenty-first century. Using examples of great and gruesome modern prose while avoiding the scolding tone and Spartan tastes of the classic manuals, he shows how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right. The Sense of Style is for writers of all kinds, and for readers who are interested in letters and literature and are curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.
"Charming and erudite," from the author of Enlightenment Now, "The wit and insight and clarity he brings . . . is what makes this book such a gem." —Time.com

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—and why should we care? From the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now.
In this entertaining and eminently practical book, the cognitive scientist, dictionary consultant, and New York Times–bestselling author Steven Pinker rethinks the usage guide for the twenty-first century. Using examples of great and gruesome modern prose while avoiding the scolding tone and Spartan tastes of the classic manuals, he shows how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right. The Sense of Style is for writers of all kinds, and for readers who are interested in letters and literature and are curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.
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    9 - 12

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  • From the book

    Prologue

    I love style manuals. Ever since I was assigned Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in an introductory psychology course, the writing guide has been among my favorite literary genres. It’s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the craft of writing. It’s also that credible guidance on writing must itself be well written, and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice. William Strunk’s course notes on writing, which his student E. B. White turned into their famous little book, was studded with gems of self-exemplification such as “Write with nouns and verbs,” “Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end,” and best of all, his prime directive, “Omit needless words.” Many eminent stylists have applied their gifts to explaining the art, including Kingsley Amis, Jacques Barzun, Ambrose Bierce, Bill Bryson, Robert Graves, Tracy Kidder, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, F. L. Lucas, George Orwell, William Safire, and of course White himself, the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Here is the great essayist reminiscing about his teacher:

    I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind? It’s all the more captivating to someone who seeks to explain these fields to a wide readership. I think about how language works so that I can best explain how language works.

    But my professional acquaintance with language has led me to read the traditional manuals with a growing sense of unease. Strunk and White, for all their intuitive feel for style, had a tenuous grasp of grammar.2 They misdefined terms such as phrase, participle, and relative clause, and in steering their readers away from passive verbs and toward active transitive ones they botched their examples of both. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground, for instance, is not in the passive voice, nor does The cock’s crow came with dawn contain a transitive verb. Lacking the tools to analyze language, they often struggled when turning their intuitions into advice, vainly appealing to the writer’s “ear.” And they did not seem to realize that some of the advice contradicted itself: “Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice” uses the passive voice to warn against the passive voice. George Orwell, in his vaunted “Politics and the English Language,” fell into the same trap when, without irony, he derided prose in which “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active.”3

    Self-contradiction aside, we now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.

    Style manuals that are innocent of linguistics also are crippled in dealing with the aspect of writing that evokes the most emotion: correct and incorrect usage. Many style manuals treat traditional rules of usage the way...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from June 30, 2014
    Forget Strunk and White’s rules—cognitive science is a surer basis for clear and cogent writing, according to this iconoclastic guide from bestselling Harvard psycholinguist Pinker (The Language Instinct). Pinker deploys history, logic, and his own deep understanding of language to debunk many prescriptivist grammatical strictures: go ahead and split that infinitive, he declares, start a sentence with a conjunction, and use passive constructions when they improve a sentence’s legibility. (He does give vent to a few of his own prescriptivist peeves, such as the use “literally” to mean “figuratively”). More broadly, he explains how the brain processes language into principles of sound writing, recommending a “classic prose style” that concretely directs the reader’s gaze at the world, deploring the “curse of knowledge” that leads academics to believe that readers understand their jargon, and mounting a spot-on critique of incoherent argumentation in a passage by military historian John Keegan. Pinker’s linguistic theory can be heavy going at times, but his prose is usually a model of clarity, lightly-worn erudition, and keen insight. Every writer can profit from—and every reader can enjoy—Pinker’s analysis of the ways in which skillfully chosen words engage the mind. Agent: John Brockman, Brockman Inc.

  • Kirkus

    August 15, 2014
    Yet another how-to book on writing? Indeed, but this is one of the best to come along in many years, a model of intelligent signposting and syntactical comportment. It's a strange thing, but many guidebooks on writing are written by people who've written only books on how to write. Not so Pinker's. Though being a linguist, as he is, doesn't make a writer any more than putting air in an airplane wheel makes a pilot, he's also got numerous best-selling books (e.g., The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011, etc.) behind him-and even that doesn't make him an expert, so we're lucky that, like fellow manual writer Stephen King, he's blessed with common sense. As a linguist, Pinker inclines to descriptivism but doesn't rule out prescriptivism entirely. "The primary lifeline between an incoming sentence and a reader's web of knowledge is the topic," he writes, carefully separating the different senses of the term "topic" in the realms of linguistics and grammar before discussing such common-sensical things as orderly transitions, logical coordination and pronoun/antecedent agreement. The author insists that any writer must be an "avid" reader, and he takes many of his examples from current literature to support pronouncements such as, "But if the subject matter is unfamiliar and has many parts, and if the writer doesn't set the reader up by focusing on one of those parts as a fact worth taking seriously, the reader may not know what he should no longer be thinking." Allowing for the "the reader/he" convention, there's nothing objectionable to that observation or, indeed, to most of the book, even if Pinker courts anarchy by allowing the distinction between "less" and "fewer" to collapse. Fatter and more complex than Strunk and White, and some of the more technical arguments may make this a tough sell on the first-year comp front. Still, Pinker's vade mecum is a worthy addition to any writer's library.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    August 1, 2014
    Perhaps the keyword in the book's subtitle is thinking, as this is not a simple, easily digested style book but more a dense, fascinating analysis of the many ways communication can be stymied by word choice, placement, stress, and the like. Pinker (The Language Instinct, 1994) includes the expected funny examples of commonly misread headlines and such, but his explanations run rich and deep, complemented by lists, cartoons, charts on diagramming sentences, and more. Hence, this is not a quick read but more a study of how to write well. Such writing, Pinker notes, requires the drafting of a blueprint, attention to detail, and an overall sense of harmony and balance. The examples Pinker analyzes run the gamut from deadline-pressured journalists, stuffy academics, corporate hacks, and the inexperienced to seasoned authors, as erudition and knowledge can and do stand in the way of clarity. Pinker himself has no problem with this, and those serious about writing (and the anal retentives bent on correcting it) will gain a fine understanding of misunderstanding and how to avoid it.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from September 15, 2014

    Psycholinguist and cognitive scientist Pinker (The Language Instinct) explains up front that his work isn't a traditional writing manual; rather, he says, it's designed for those who seek to improve already sturdy writing skills. He advocates using classic style, and explains what that means thoroughly. Devised by literary scholars Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner and intended for writers addressing a general audience, classic style is best accomplished by the writer imagining that she (the generic gender pronoun used by Pinker) is staging a scene. The language used must be straightforward and take logical steps from one idea to the next. Pinker also describes, in detail and often with great humor, what not to do. No legalese or professionalese, for example. Also to be avoided (though the author explains why it's so difficult to do) is assuming that your readers know what you do--a phenomenon he refers to as "the curse of knowledge." Pinker employs the straightforwardness he recommends, and all readers will come away with ways to make their writing more vivid and accessible. Readers looking to gain a greater benefit from the book can improve their skills by digesting his advice over time; the more ambitious will spend time with Pinker's diagrams that parse sentences to ensure that writers learn never to create--a wonderful phrase--"garden paths" that lead their readers astray. VERDICT A thoughtful addition for writing instruction collections; the chapter on "The Curse of Knowledge" should be mandatory reading for everyone.--Henrietta Verma, Library Journal

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    September 15, 2014

    Psycholinguist and cognitive scientist Pinker (The Language Instinct) explains up front that his work isn't a traditional writing manual; rather, he says, it's designed for those who seek to improve already sturdy writing skills. He advocates using classic style, and explains what that means thoroughly. Devised by literary scholars Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner and intended for writers addressing a general audience, classic style is best accomplished by the writer imagining that she (the generic gender pronoun used by Pinker) is staging a scene. The language used must be straightforward and take logical steps from one idea to the next. Pinker also describes, in detail and often with great humor, what not to do. No legalese or professionalese, for example. Also to be avoided (though the author explains why it's so difficult to do) is assuming that your readers know what you do--a phenomenon he refers to as "the curse of knowledge." Pinker employs the straightforwardness he recommends, and all readers will come away with ways to make their writing more vivid and accessible. Readers looking to gain a greater benefit from the book can improve their skills by digesting his advice over time; the more ambitious will spend time with Pinker's diagrams that parse sentences to ensure that writers learn never to create--a wonderful phrase--"garden paths" that lead their readers astray. VERDICT A thoughtful addition for writing instruction collections; the chapter on "The Curse of Knowledge" should be mandatory reading for everyone.--Henrietta Verma, Library Journal

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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