The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

cover_pinker 2

This is definitely a book that I will read again, and again. Pinker’s expertise in psycholinguistics allows his readers to understand why English rules are constructed the way they are. My favourite thing about this book is that Pinker acknowledges that English is always changing, and that constructions that are seen as correct today may be incorrect in the future. He debunks purist theories about the English language with simple reasoning, namely that language changes because people change:

Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.  (3)

While this book is written with a focus on technical writing, the content of it can be applied to any sort of writing. It is lathered with beautiful examples of good writing, because as we all (hopefully) know: “Good writers are avid readers” (11).

I consider myself to be a technical thinker. I even try to break art down to a science. When I am painting something I try to analyze the exact contours of shades of colours, try to break the real world down into pixels that I can transfer to the canvas. It doesn’t come naturally to me, not in the sense of just having a “feel” for it. For me, the same thing applies to writing. And this book is the perfect technical guide for that. It breaks down the style of writing into a science. In Pinker’s words:

I like to read style manuals for [a] 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? (2)

I have to admit that there were two chapters of this book for me that were extremely difficult for me to get through. The two grammar chapters. But these were also the chapters that gave me the most valuable information. One is titled “The Web, The Tree, and The String”. I think every writer encounters sentences in which they ask themselves which order the words should go in. There are many ways that are technically right, but often certain arrangements are confusing and misleading. After reading this chapter I never have to question the order of my words anymore, or when I do, I know the answer. This chapter, and the final chapter “Telling Right From Wrong”, is why I now call this book my grammar bible. For the first time not only do I know the rules, I also understand the reasoning behind them.

I would easily recommend this book to anyone, because I feel that the writing skills that are taught in this book are applicable to any type of writing: professional and in every day life.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style. Penguin Group: New York, 2014. Print.


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