I share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.
Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.
I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.
I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.
No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.
You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.
Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.
If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.
Dr. Pinker is, unarguably, far smarter than I am. He’s a brilliant man and prolific writer. I have several of his books, and I marvel at his insight, his depth and his range. His explorations into language, learning, cognition thought and communication are breathtaking. But, I must admit, I never liked him much as a writer.
I find him dense. There, I’ve said it. Maybe it’s my fault for not having sufficient academic background to understand him fully. Maybe it’s because I tend to flit back and forth between books, reading a dozen at a time, rather than putting all my energy into one, so I fail to full appreciate its depth. And maybe it’s also because he writes dense texts.
But when I saw he had written a style guide, The Sense of Style, subtitled “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” I figured he would leave the academia behind sufficiently to offer we lay mortals a guide to clear, concise usage and grammar. Updating, revising and revisiting such classics as The Elements of Style or Copperud’s Consensus.
The Sense of Style might be called “Pinker light” in that it is certainly easier to read than (some of) his previous works, and in part lightened by his use of cartoons to illustrate some points. But it’s not written in a way that makes it an easy, accessible reference like Strunk and White, Fowler, Bernstein or Copperud. I can’t open it anywhere to find a brief description of a word, or phrase, terminology or method to explore his thoughts on how to write well.
Instead, I have to wade through the first 201 pages (of almost 360) of exposition on language and grammar (and some on style, but less so) to get to this sort of easy categorization. And even then, it’s not as comprehensive a section as other writers on the topic offer. But in those 120 or so pages is where the most fun can be found. It’s where Pinker isn’t being as pedantic as in the rest of the book. He actually lets some humour shine through.
(And watching his videos, you see and hear Pinker is actually a good, witty speaker with a sense of humour.)
Pinker’s book has received glowing reviews, however, so the fault must be in me. I think it’s a good book, one among many in my library, but not as crisp, clear and succinct as I had hoped and not the sort of reference that sits beside me when I’m working.
While Strunk and White have been criticized and even dismissed by others in the trade – Pinker mildly does so – for their hectoring, and sometimes pig-headed and occasionally wrong approach, at least The Elements of Style is short, easy to read and accessible. So are the others that I keep closest.
(As a sidebar, I don’t know any writer who accepts Strunk and White as the sole guide to usage. It is merely one reference in a library of similar titles to which we refer.)
Pinker says technology and the internet aren’t to blame for the the poor writing today, as many argue. He says every generation has made the same sort of claims about the decay of language, since the dawn of writing. Well, they may not be to blame, but some argue that they are making it worse, or at least not making it better. But defending digital media is not the point of his book, merely an observation he opens with.
He takes on some shibboleths about usage and style – like why you can use which in restrictive clauses instead of that, or how dangling modifiers aren’t always to be avoided, or when fused participles are acceptable – but that isn’t unique to Pinker. Grammarians have been exposing the exceptions to rules and challenging the laws ever since Strunk.
Most of his approach is that writing should be enjoyable and that it can be learned without a lot of pain. Just needs a little effort and thought.
In which lies the problem. Today there seem fewer people – given the average attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish – willing to put that pair into anything. And, conditioned by a school system to see learning as the dreary and dull period spent between important self-esteem building exercises instead of a joyous act of discovery, I don’t see many people willingly engage in the practice of post-school self-education. Unless, of course, they already have acquired the habit of being an autodidact.
And Pinker’s book will take both time and effort.
Pinker’s latest book is, I believe, preaching to the choir. It won’t end up as a popular reference or classroom text and it’s too wordy to be desktop reference. I suspect it will be read mostly by pedants who make acerbic comments on people’s ungrammatical Facebook posts; those to whom grammar, style and writing still matter and cannot help but remind others of it.
And to those of us who fit that description, I recommend it.