Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker

22813026I'm familiar with Steven Pinker's work in linguistics and cognition, so when I saw that he'd written a book on writing style, I pounced on it. This book has been savaged by critics, and I took exception with parts of it, as well. It may be self-contradictory in places, and Pinker may indeed have wandered off course here and there, but there is still much that's worthwhile.

Pinker of course dedicates a chapter to the authors of the classic Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White, the beloved author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. White, a renouned essayist, had actually been one of Strunk's students, and in reminiscing about his teacher, he once wrote, "In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself -- a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, 'Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!'"

Pinker goes on to share his own definition of needless words. He doesn't necessarily endorse Mark Twain's advice -- "When you catch an adjective, kill it" -- but he is death on words that weaken prose, water it down, either by fluffery or awkward constructions. Brevity in the name of clarity, in other words. "Very" is one of his bugbears.
That's the basis for the common advice (usually misattributed to Mark Twain) to "substitute damn every time you're inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”, though today the substitution would have to be of a word stronger than damn.
Pinker also dismisses those who say the English language is in decline, thanks to electronic devices, slipping standards, poor teaching, too much TV, or just the impending end of western civilization.
According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.
We're holding steady if not improving, Pinker maintains.
Surveys have shown that college students are writing more than their counterparts in earlier generations did, and that they make no more errors per page of writing.  And contrary to an urban legend, they do not sprinkle their papers with smileys and instant-messaging abbreviations like IMHO and L8TR, any more than previous generations forgot how to use prepositions and articles out of the habit of omitting them from their telegrams. Members of the Internet generation, like all language users, fit their phrasing to the setting and audience, and have a good sense of what is appropriate in formal writing.
I occasionally get the sense (sometimes from my editing clients) that my fastidiousness about correct usage is one manifestation of OCD. Surely I'm one of a small battalion of grammar Nazis who fuss about apostrophes, right?  I don't see it that way, and it's good to know I'm not alone.
Here is how one technology executive explains why he rejects job applications filled with errors of grammar and punctuation: "If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it's, then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with."
Pinker produces some outstanding examples of fine prose, including an obituary that would have thrilled its subject. I know I'd die more happily knowing that an obituary like this one was going to follow.
MAURICE SENDAK, AUTHOR OF SPLENDID NIGHTMARES, DIES AT 83 Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children's book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying, and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. Roundly praised, intermittently censored, and occasionally eaten, Mr. Sendak's books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children.
I don't know that "phonesthetic" words are the best words, but it's an interesting idea, that some words sound like their meanings, short of being onomatopoeic.
The best words not only pinpoint an idea better than any alternative but echo it in their sound and articulation, a phenomenon called phonesthetics, the feeling of sound. It's no coincidence that haunting means "haunting" and tart means "tart", rather than the other way around; just listen to your voice and sense your muscles as you articulate them.
I also love Pinker's advice to those who, with the best of intentions, use a thesaurus to liven up their prose. Good idea, not always executed well.
...write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers: "Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool."
Nominalization:  another way to drain the lifeblood out of prose. As this is something I confront every day, I appreciated Pinker's rant against this syndrome.
Together with verbal coffins ... in which writers entomb their actors and actions, the English language provides them with a dangerous weapon called nominalization: making something into a noun. The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like -ance, -ment, -ation, or -ing. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement. The writing scholar Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion. They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.
He points out that his very own tribe of academics is especially guilty of this sin, as well as creating much more tangled briar patches of language. Politicians also excel at it.
Any interrogatory verbalizations? But it's not just academics who loose these zombies on the world. In response to a hurricane which threatened the Republican National Convention in 2012, Florida governor Rick Scott told the press, "There is not any anticipation there will be a cancellation," that is, he didn't anticipate that he would have to cancel the convention. And in 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry announced, "The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our efforts in order to find a way to facilitate," to wit, the president wanted to help... 
When a grammatical construction is associated with politicians you can be sure that it provides a way to evade responsibility.
Actually, I find a lot of murky prose shows a writer's unwillingness to take full responsibility for his statements, no matter what he does for a living. Muddying it up gives him some wiggle room if anyone dissents.

After ripping apart the 50+ word sentences in one PhD student's thesis (only to find that the sentence lacked a verb, or that the thought could have been stated with perfect clarity in a half dozen words), I began to think that gobbledegook has become the academic lingua franca. Pinker says it's not so.
People often tell me that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one's seriousness. This has not been my experience, and it turns out to be a myth.
As I was working on that thesis, I recited the following as a mantra. I probably even added it to my final notes to the student.  I think it's an excellent guideline for all writers on all topics.
The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know. 
Oh, and knowing what you're writing about and why you're writing it is also requisite.
Together with the topic of a text, the reader usually needs to know its point. He needs to know what the author is trying to accomplish as she explores the topic. Human behavior in general is understandable only once you know the actor's goals. When you see someone waving her arms, the first thing you want to know is whether she is trying to attract attention, shoo away flies, or exercise her deltoids. That is also true of writing. The reader needs to know whether a writer is rabbiting on about a topic in order to explain it, convey interesting new facts about it, advance an argument about it, or use it as an example of an important generalization. In other words, a writer has to have both something to talk about (the topic) and something to say (the point). 
Pinker, like many other arbiters of writing style, advocates learning the rules before trying to bend and break them. While preaching the gospel of grammar, he also points out that language is a fluid medium, always changing. Some usage questions will always boil down to subjective judgement calls.
Many people assume that there is such a governing body, namely the makers of dictionaries, but as chair of the Usage Panel of the famously prescriptive American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), I am here to tell you that this assumption is false. When I asked the editor of the dictionary how he and his colleagues decide what goes into it, he replied,"We pay attention to the way people use language." That's right: when it comes to correct English, there's no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum. The editors of a dictionary read a lot, keeping their eyes open for new words and senses that are used by many writers in many contexts...
I fought the good fight against using "impact" as a verb for many years, but I've finally surrendered. It's become acceptable through wide usage, and that, in the end, has impacted my editing.  (I still hate it, by the way.)

1 comment:

  1. Steven Pinker is one of my very favourite authors. I have just finished reading his "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" and I swear I am more in love with him now that 15 years ago when i first read "How the Mind Works." If that is even possible.


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