Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style will get grammar pedants' knickers in a twist

The author is refreshingly dismissive of some long-hallowed 'rules' of good writing, says Chris West.

by Steven Pinker
Last Updated: 24 Dec 2014

Can an American tell us how to write English, after all the US has done to burglarise our language? Is this something up with which we should put?

Steven Pinker's book debunks a lot of the myths surrounding what you 'should' and 'shouldn't' write in English: like sentences that start with 'like' or end with a preposition; cowardly quotation marks around single words, commas before the final item in a list, and angry letters to supermarkets that offer express check-out lanes for people with 10 items or less.

Pinker is a Harvard professor and he uses his skills in linguistics to surgically snip away at the stitching that holds together the pedants' tightly twisted knickers until they fall to the ground and their fallacies are revealed.

So, if it makes your mission more compelling, you're free to boldly go and split an infinitive: the only 'reason' not to do it was that someone in self-appointed authority decreed that English should follow Latin, where a split infinitive is impossible.

Whenever you want to know how you build a sentence so that it flies from your head and lands safely in mine, read Pinker. But this time, he wants his book to be a style guide, and a rational one. Pish.

Language is the greatest creation of humans. Analysis of how it achieves its effect, rather than a manual of its mechanics, is as troublesome as dissecting a person to find his soul: the more you cut, the more you're left with useless lumps of meat.

If you want to fill a drawer with sharp tools, you'd be better off reading Stephen King's On Writing, lucidly written after alcoholic binges, a nearly fatal car crash and 350 million books sold. To learn to be ruthless with your prose, read Martin Amis's The War Against Cliche. And if you want to indulge yourself with a writer's mix of the Kama Sutra and martial arts practice, pick up Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style.

Pinker has spent more time at the blackboard than wondering lonely as a cloud, and the chapter on how you can avoid convoluted sentences by using diagrams of sentence syntax is like medieval torture, offering more pain than revelation. I worry that this stuff is more interesting to Pinker than it is to me, and I make a living helping people to write better at work.

I willingly sit at Pinker's feet, however, when he tells us about the curse of knowledge; how, when we write, we consistently overestimate what our reader knows. To improve your writing, it's not enough to picture your readers; the truth is, the better you know a subject, the less you remember of how hard it was to learn and how little other people know.

Yet, he's capable of writing a sentence such as: 'Another is the grammatical process that inspired Noam Chomsky to propose his theory in which a sentence's underlying tree - its deep structure - is transformed by a rule that moves a phrase into a new position, yielding a slightly altered tree called a surface structure.' I had 20 new thoughts when I read that, unfortunately none of them was about linguistics.

The greatest success of the book is when Pinker turns his acute mind to the different modes of writing. He points out the intellectual laziness in the gobbledegook used by academics, bureaucrats, legal advisers and other professional arse-coverers.

He highlights Classic style, which doesn't depend upon the construction of individual sentences. Instead, it's about styling your language so it carves a hole through a wall and gives your reader a new view of the world. Classic style paints pictures in the mind by gently turning the readers' head to focus their gaze on concrete things, rather than asking their mind to handle abstract notions.

If you want to see Classic style at work, pick up a Berkshire Hathaway newsletter or the most recent IBM annual report. As you turn page after page, the words fall away and you see what Warren Buffett sees, you sit in the CEO's chair at IBM headquarters and are faced with what she has had to face. Classic style is unashamedly not egalitarian. It is aristocratic. It believes in finding a truth, even a biased truth, and standing up for it. Most of all, it understands the burden of its obligation to the reader, and it has taken the time to wrestle with its thoughts before it begins.

For this introduction to Classic style alone, Sense of Style is worth picking up.

Chris West is the founder of Verbal Identity and brand strategy consultant for BA, the Conservative party and Adidas. He writes for the Sunday Times and is a contributing editor at ultra-luxury magazine Lusso

The Sense of Style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century by Steven Pinker. Published by Allen Lane, £20


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime