Book Review – The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Steven Pinker. 2014. New York, NY: Viking Adult. [ISBN 978-0-670-02585-5. 360 pages, including index. US$27.95 (hardcover).

Note: This book review by Patrick Lufkin was originally published in the STC Journal Technical Communication, Volume 62, Number 1, February 2015.

With dozens of books offering writing advice out there, do we really need another?

After examining the strengths and weaknesses of existing guides, Pinker argues that the considerable progress made in cognitive science in recent years cries out for a fresh approach.

We now have “an understanding of grammatical phenomena which goes well beyond the traditional taxonomies based on crude analogies with Latin,” “a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading,” and “a body of history and criticism which can distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings” (p. 6).

Pinker translates these new understandings into practical advice for the working writer in this delightful, informative guide. He is a cognitive scientist, linguist, Harvard psychology professor, and Chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Pinker is also a best-selling author of more than a dozen books on language and other topics.

To make his points, Pinker disassembles passages of exemplary prose to show how they work, and discusses various writing styles in terms of their effect on the reader. For most purposes, he recommends a classic style-a style modeled on a conversation among equals. Classic style offers a window on the world and uses clear explanations and concrete examples. Classic style “makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce” (p. 36).

Besides poor style choice, much incomprehensible writing stems from what Pinker calls “the curse of knowledge” (p. 57), the writer’s failure to comprehend or appreciate that the reader doesn’t know what the writer knows. This can lead to poorly chosen focus, excessive abstraction, using incomprehensible jargon, omitting concrete details the reader needs, and a host of other faults.

Drawing on new understandings of grammar and syntax, Pinker provides fresh explanations that are clear, lucid, and likely to be remembered and applied. Along the way, he shows that the rules are not a series of traps, but valuable tools that make sharing ideas possible by helping you avoid convoluted and misleading prose. Pinker also shows how to gracefully link sentences into larger units of what he calls “arcs of coherence” that help readers “grasp the topic, get the point, keep track of the players, and see how one idea follows from another” (p. 139).

Pinker finishes by addressing dozens of thorny issues of correctness and usage. With clarity and wit, he separates truths from half-truths, myths, peeves, and ham-fisted advice, and gives careful writers the information they need to push back against usage scolds and overzealous copyeditors.

Whether you’re a working writer who wants to improve your craft or someone who just wants to better understand how language works at its best, get The Sense of Style. Both wise and practical, this superb guide is as good as they come.

Patrick Lufkin
STC Associate Fellow

Patrick Lufkin has experience in computer documentation, newsletter production, and public relations. He reads widely in science, history, and current affairs, as well as on writing and editing. He chairs the Gordon Scholarship for Technical Communication and co-chairs the Northern California Technical Communication competition.