On September 12, 2012, Steven Pinker gave a lecture at MIT, “The Sense of Style: Scientific Communication for the 21st Century.” Much of what he says about good prose in this lecture is unobjectionable. And much of it is familiar:
§ “The Sense of Style” (also the title of a forthcoming book) acknowledges and draws generously from Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, whose exposition of “classic style” — embodying particular understandings about language, truth, and the purpose of writing — furnishes Pinker with a model for good scientific writing.
§ Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace informs Pinker’s discussions of metadiscourse (writing about one’s writing) and sentence structure (“Push new, complex units of information to the end of the sentence,” as Williams puts it).
§ Longer versions of Pinker’s brief catalogue of unfounded usage rules (for example, don’t end a sentence with a preposition) can be had from many sources. Try a Google search for grammar myth as a start.
§ Pinker’s example of postmodern prose is the Judith Butler sentence that Dennis Dutton singled out for his 1998 Bad Writing Contest.
§ The closing tongue-in-cheek example of good prose, a child’s essay grounded in careful observation, may be found in Sir Ernest Gowers’s Plain Words.¹
There is nothing new under the sun, as someone once said.
What most troubles me about Pinker’s lecture though is its opening discussion of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Why begin with The Elements? Because, Pinker says, it’s the book that his Harvard colleagues recommend to their graduate students for help with writing. In clearing a space for his own work, Pinker misrepresents The Elements, even as he acknowledges, briefly, the book’s “good sense and charm.”²
And so it is that I find myself writing once again in defense of The Elements, a book I do not use in my teaching, a book I hadn’t thought of for many years, not until Geoffrey Pullum’s 2009 fiftieth-anniversary appraisal prompted me to read it again. Whatever. I’m interested, always, in accuracy, and I don’t like misrepresentation, particularly when it comes from those who should know better. Pinker should know better. But his presentation of Strunk and White is an assemblage of misinformation, decontextualization, received ideas, and misunderstandings. For example:
“White had kept his professor’s course notes, turned them into a book with the permission of his estate, and it is now by far the best known manual on writing style.” One need only read the introduction to The Elements to get the story of the book’s making. That Pinker gets it wrong makes me wonder whether his remarks on The Elements come from an engagement with the text or from reading what others have written about it.
Pinker quotes Strunk and White: “Write with nouns and verbs.” The MIT audience laughs hard at that. But in context, this sentence is sound advice that can also be had from many sources that postdate The Elements of Style : rely on nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. (My homemade examples of the inanity Strunk and White seek to discourage: “the cold, round doorknob,” “wept sadly.”)
Yes, there are recommendations in The Elements that now look dated or merely odd. Pinker comments on Strunk and White’s warning against contact (as a verb), their preference for persons to people (with words of number), and their strange advice about the word clever as it applies to horses and people (or persons). Jan Freeman addressed these three matters in “Clever Horses,” a 2009 Boston Globe column on unhelpful advice in The Elements.
A received idea and a misunderstanding
Pinker repeats Geoffrey Pullum’s claim that this Strunk and White sentence contradicts its own advice: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” Pinker sees the sentence as an example of “inept guidance”: I don’t believe this was ironic," he says. But it is. John Gruber pointed out the joke in 2009. There are whole paragraphs in The Elements (about the dangers of overstatement and qualification) that work the same way, cheekily, glaringly contradicting the advice they offer. These touches of wit acknowledge the reader’s intelligence and set The Elements apart from straightforward textbooks.
A received idea and a misunderstanding
Pinker repeats the canard that The Elements prohibits the use of the passive voice. Contra Strunk and White, says Pinker, “There is a need for the passive, if you understand what grammatical constructions are for.” But Strunk and White agree with him: “This rule [‘Use the active voice’] does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” The Elements has sample sentences that show how the choice of active or passive voice shapes meaning: “The need to make a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.” In other words, Strunk and White say exactly what Pinker presents them as not saying.
Decontextualization, received ideas, and a misunderstanding
If you have followed the fortunes of The Elements of Style in recent years, you may have already guessed that Pinker, like Pullum, charges Strunk and White with grammatical incompetence: “They had a rather shaky grasp of basic grammatical constructions, such as the passive voice,” Pinker says. “Neither of them knew anything about linguistics or grammatical theory.” Pinker’s slides include this one, which follows Pullum in claiming that Strunk and White go wrong with three of four examples of the passive voice:
[Pinker’s slide follows the sequence in which Pullum quotes these sentences, not the sequence in which they appear in The Elements .]
As I wrote in 2009, Pullum ignores the sentences that precede these examples in The Elements. Pinker ignores them too.³ Those sentences establish without question that the four examples are not presented as four examples of the passive voice:
The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard. [My emphasis.]One more misunderstanding
A larger misunderstanding shapes Pinker’s presentation of The Elements of Style : the claim (following Thomas and Turner) that Strunk and White focus only on the surface features of writing, that they lack what Pinker calls a “principled understanding of how language and style work.” Much depends upon what one means by “principled understanding” and “how language and style work.” The claim, though, that Strunk and White focus only on surface features of language, on arbitrary dos and don’ts and pet peeves, is not one that The Elements supports. The book presents style as a matter of concision, transparency, and tact. Or to use White’s series, “plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity,” all of which is not far from Thomas and Turner’s model of “classic style.” Strunk thinks of good writing as a work of elegant design:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.White understands style, whatever form it may take, not as a matter of correcting errors or adding finishing touches but as something inseparable from writing:
Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, the sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable.His most important addition to Strunk’s work, the chapter “An Approach to Style,” is as much a guide to conduct as to writing: “Do not overstate”; “Do not affect a breezy manner.”
It is ironic that a lecture promulgating the “classic style,” a mode of writing that, as Pinker puts it, points to “something in the world which the reader can see with his own eyes,” should offer such an inaccurate picture of The Elements of Style . I cannot find on my shelves the book that Pinker describes. I agree with him that The Elements is not the best choice for teaching writing in the twenty-first century. The book is temporally incorrect, badly dated. But I also find myself agreeing with Bryan Garner’s appraisal:
This little book has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to write better — partly by precept and partly by example. It continues to influence more writers than any other. It’s a force for good in the world.Pinker will have to work hard to displace The Elements : as I write, the fourth-edition paperback is the top-selling book in three Education and Reference categories at Amazon.
December 20, 2014: I’ve written a review of The Sense of Style.
All Strunk and White posts (Pinboard)
Another Elements error
The Elements of Style, one more time (A review)
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective) (Do Strunk and White prohibit adjectives and adverbs?)
Pullum on Strunk and White
Strunk and White and wit
¹ Perhaps Gower found it here.
² Perfunctory praise followed by extended criticism is a standard academic gesture. See also Stanley Fish’s comments on The Elements of Style in How to Write a Sentence . In clearing space for his own work, Fish too misrepresents Strunk and White.
³ There is a mistake to be fixed: as I pointed out in 2009, Strunk and White’s second improved sentence — “The cock’s crow came with dawn” — has an intransitive verb, not a transitive in the active voice. Whether that mistake signifies anything more than random oversight is another question. And if it doesn’t go without saying: understanding the passive and its appropriate uses does not require a background in linguistics or grammatical theory. See, for instance, the discussion for the general reader in John Trimble’s Writing with Style.