Monday, November 17, 2014

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

I enjoyed most of Steven Pinker’s, The Sense of Style – The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

My computer puts a green wavy line under the second definite article in that title, apparently because it doesn’t like the capitalisation. Just illustrating that we can all find something to argue about when deciding how groups of words should be written. I could object to the inelegance of the occurrence of two definite articles in so few words, and I could wonder at the ambiguity: who is the thinking person, the author or any reader who finds the book a useful guide?

And arguments can get heated. To deter criticism – rather as Kremlin parades of nuclear missiles averted Moscow’s annihilation – Pinker ends with five things an antagonist should do before engaging. The fifth includes this:

“Psychologists have shown that in any dispute both sides are convinced that they themselves are reasonable and upright and that their opposite numbers are mulish and dishonest. [Footnoting Haidt, J. 2012. The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon, and Pinker, S. 2011. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking, chapter 8.]”

Squabbles about being right or wrong are beside the point. The point is style, not grammar. And Pinker concludes by saying that the reasons to strive for good style are:

“to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”

And how to achieve good style? Pinker describes his own writing method, presumably used for this book: rework every sentence, revise a chapter two or three times before showing it to anyone, revise again at least twice in response to feedback, then give the whole book “at least two complete passes of polishing” before it goes to the copy editor for a couple more rounds of tweaking.

Good style doesn’t come easily. And what is the thing that all this revision is trying to get into the writing? Pinker gives plenty of examples of how writing can be improved. In the end, however, all that can really be said by way of defining good style, it seems to me, is that it feels right, and in the case of a revision it feels better than what went before. And this improvement would be accepted by most adults who have English as their first language and who appreciate good writing (the thinking people of his title). Read aloud, to get syntax right so that readers don’t stumble: “laboratory studies have shown that even skilled readers have a little voice running through their heads the whole time.” If it doesn’t sound right it’s not good style.

In one – what is for me significant – respect I find Pinker’s style repellent. I suspect his ears (as he says in relation to a different topic) have “been contaminated by a habit ... to avoid spitballs from the Gotcha! Gang.” It seems to me that his ears have been contaminated in the academic environment by the requirement, appropriate though it may be during a developmental stage of young people’s education, to avoid the sexism of using he to include the female gender, by using he alternately with she, or by using the phrase he or she, or by using their to refer to a singular of either gender.

I agree that sexist language should be avoided, but the right way to do it is to revise until the need for reference to gender disappears. I agree with Antonin Scalia on this (see my review of Scalia and Garner, Making Your Case – The Art of Persuading Judges).

Pinker begins (according to my Kindle app this is p (iv)) by telling us that he will “avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she ... [by] consistently referring to a generic writer of one sex and a generic writer of another. The male gender ... will represent the writer in this chapter; the roles will alternate in subsequent ones.” But later (p 260) he refers again to science: “Experiments that measure readers’ comprehension times to the thousandth of a second have shown that the singular they causes little or no delay, but generic he slows them down a lot.”

So generic he is bad. Presumably generic she is too. So Pinker’s plan was to alternate bad style chapters with other bad style chapters.

Although he acknowledges that he or she is clumsy (p 256), his plan leads Pinker to do worse by alternating male and female pronouns, even in the one sentence (p 29): “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.”

This would have been better: "The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, bringing it to the reader’s attention." And even better: "The writer can bring something new to the reader's attention."

And sillier too is the image one gets of Pinker marking a student’s paper, when he says that (p 28) a “college student who writes a term paper is pretending that he knows more about his subject than the reader and that his goal is to supply the reader with information she needs ...”.

Better would have been: "a college student who writes a term paper is pretending to know more about its subject than the reader and that the goal is to supply the reader with needed information." Even better: "a college student who writes a term paper is pretending to tell the reader something new."

My suggestions are not perfect, and I’m not calling Pinker mulish, but they point to directions for further revisions.

This narrow point of objection to Pinker’s style may not be shared by you (I have done this sort of thing before), and it doesn’t really diminish the value of the book. A good guide for everything except avoidance of sexist language.