Saturday, December 20, 2014

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2014. $27.95. 359 pages.

In the last three pages of The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker offers advice about what’s genuinely important in writing, the principles “that govern critical thinking and factual diligence”: “First, look things up.” “Second, be sure your arguments are sound.” “Third, don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world.” “Fourth, beware of false dichotomies.” “Finally, arguments should be based on reasons, not people.” Would that Pinker had taken his own advice.

The Sense of Style is a disappointing book. It presents its author as a figure of urbane intelligence — witty, knowing, calmly superior — doing battle against agitated, deluded, self-styled experts. But the enemy in this book is a straw man or woman, or a whole army of straw folk. And the non-imaginary writer whose work poses perhaps the greatest challenge to Pinker’s own claim to authority is nowhere to be found in these pages.


First, look things up.

“We are blessed to live in an age in which no subject has gone unresearched by scholars, scientists, and journalists,” Pinker writes. “The fruits of their research are available within seconds to anyone with a laptop or a smartphone, and within minutes to anyone who can get to a library.” Thus it is remarkable how Pinker gets things wrong. Consider his treatment of — what else? — The Elements of Style. As in a 2012 lecture at MIT, Pinker presents Strunk and White as prohibiting the passive voice: “telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice.” But that’s not what Strunk and White tell writers to do. Their more nuanced advice appears in a discussion of the virtues of the active voice:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. . . . This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary . . . . 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. [Examples appear at each ellipsis.]
Pinker follows Geoffrey Pullum in presenting the four pairs of sentences that follow this passage as evidence that Strunk and White did not understand the passive voice. And it’s true that one of their sentences involves a mistake: in “The cock’s crow came with dawn,” the verb is intransitive. But the pairs of sentences are meant to illustrate, as Strunk and White say, the advantages of “substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard .” In other words, the sentences are not presented as examples of passive to active. Even Pullum, who’s been hating on The Elements of Style for years, acknowledges that the book does not prohibit the use of the passive voice. In claiming that Strunk and White tell writers to avoid the passive voice, Pinker goes Pullum one better, or one worse.

A second example of the failure to look things up: Pinker makes a claim about Strunk and White and some unnamed others: “the orthodox stylebooks,” Pinker says, “are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time.” But The Elements acknowledges that fact:
The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time.
Pinker’s dismissive presentation of White’s attitude toward change in language is inaccurate and misleading in several ways:
In the last edition published in his lifetime, White did acknowledge some changes to the language, instigated by “youths” who “speak to other youths in a tongue of their own devising: they renovate the language with a wild vigor, as they would a basement apartment.” White’s condescension to these “youths” (now in their retirement years) led him to predict the passing of nerd, psyched, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky, all of which have become entrenched in the language.
Nothing in White’s observations is a matter of a grudging admission at twilight: a version of the passage Pinker quotes first appeared in the second (1972) edition of The Elements. Its items in a series: uptight, groovy, rap, hangup, vibes, copout, and dig. The third (1979) edition of The Elements was the last published in White’s lifetime. Its list: uptight, ripoff, rap, dude, vibes, copout, and funky. The list Pinker quotes is from the fourth edition, published in 1999, fourteen years after White’s death.¹

But consider too what White says about these lists:
By the time this paragraph sees print, [the words of each series] will be the words of yesteryear, and we will be fielding more recent ones that have come bouncing into our speech — some of them into our dictionary as well. A new word is always up for survival. Many do survive. Others grow stale and disappear. Most are, at least in their infancy, more appropriate to conversation than to composition.
White does not say that these words will disappear. To the contrary: some of them will make it into the dictionary. What White does say is that these words will become “the words of yesteryear,” followed by still newer words. And notice that these observations distinguish between what’s appropriate in “conversation” and what’s appropriate in “composition,” between speech and formal writing. As a teenager, I must have announced hundreds of times that I was psyched. But I’m sure that I never used the word psyched in a term paper. Today, still, no one does.

One more failure to look things up: here, as in his 2012 lecture, Pinker gets The Strunk and White Story wrong, saying that White turned Strunk’s “course notes on writing” into a book. One need not read past the first paragraph of White’s introduction to The Elements of Style to get the gist of things: “A textbook required for the course was a slim volume called The Elements of Style, whose author was the professor himself.” White didn’t turn course notes into a book: he turned a book into a larger book.


Second, be sure your arguments are sound.

The trouble with Pinker’s arguments is that again and again they oppose prohibitions and taboos that no reputable authority endorses. Consider, for instance, Pinker’s advice about infinitives, that it’s acceptable to split them, at least sometimes. Pinker pronounces the prohibition on the split infinitive “a mythical usage rule,” “the quintessential bogus rule.” Mythical and bogus indeed, for where is this rule to be found? Pinker cites seven authorities who sanction the split (he could have added Strunk and White and others). So who is the enemy here? Some straw man or woman, insisting upon some mistaken idea of correctness.

Pinker’s insistence that it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition runs into the same problem. He cites no authority who says otherwise. As with an alleged rule I recently wrote about (never end a sentence with it ), prohibitions against split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions are matters of folklore, superstition, derided by the very authorities on usage whom Pinker disparages.


Third, don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world.

Pinker is the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary ’s Usage Panel, an assemblage of 200 writers who fill out questionnaires about language. (A snoot by the name of Wallace was a member.) These writers do not meet to hash out questions of usage together; rather, they record their individual preferences for the AHD ’s consideration. Pinker’s estimate of the panel’s importance is clear: “When it comes to best practices in usage, there is no higher authority.” Imagine, though, how Pinker might cast the work of this group if its conclusions about language were wildly at odds with his own, if it insisted, say, on the snoot-Wallace distinction between nauseous and nauseated: “Rather than look at how people speak and write, the American Heritage Dictionary relies on its own chosen elite, whose tastes and preferences can hardly be said to reflect” — and so on.

The usage authority whose work is conspicuously absent from The Sense of Style is Bryan Garner, whose judgments are based not on personal preference but on extensive surveying of language use. A sample, from the preface to the first (1998) edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage :
When I say, then, that ethicist is 400 times more common than ethician , I have searched vast databases of newspapers and journals to arrive at this round figure. As for those particular terms, the NEXIS databases (as of December 1997) contain 10,138 published documents in which ethicist appears, but only 25 documents in which ethician appears. (The ratio in WESTLAW’S “allnews” database is 7,400 to 6.) So much for the dictionaries that give the main listing under ethician. They’re out of step: the compilers might have 5 or 10 citation slips in their files, but that’s a paltry number when compared with mountains of evidence that the searching of reliable databases can unearth.
See the difference? As for language and change: the most recent (2009) edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage makes use of a Language-Change Index, marking five stages in usage.

Garner has sharply criticized Pinker, and I cannot imagine that either man has any great affection for the other. But for Pinker to cite numerous sources on style and usage while writing as if Garner’s work did not exist: that’s intellectually dishonest. I notice too that Pinker has nothing to say about David Foster Wallace’s arch-snoot Harper’s essay “Tense Present,” certainly the best known piece of writing about language and usage in recent years. But of course that essay is in large part a paean to Garner’s work.²


Fourth, beware of false dichotomies.

“There is no dichotomy between describing how people use language and prescribing how they might use it more effectively,” Pinker writes. I agree. Long before this book’s publication, Garner pointed out that Pinker had silently revised his position on prescriptivism:
Rarely have I seen a more agreeable intellectual about-face. But of course he doesn’t acknowledge that he now takes a position that reputable prescriptivists have taken for over a century.
In The Sense of Style Pinker establishes a different false dichotomy, between that straw army and himself.


Finally, arguments should be based on reasons, not people.

Yes, they should be. Pinker cautions that
slinging around insults like simplistic , naïve , or vulgar , does not prove that the things the person is saying are false. Nor is the point of disagreement or criticism to show that you are smarter or nobler than your target.
How curious then that The Sense of Style should rely on one disparaging term after another: “anal-retentives,” “faultfinders,” “the Gotcha! Gang,” ”grammar nannies,” “grammar Nazis,” “graybeard sensibilities,” “know-it-alls,” “language grump,” “language police,” “Miss Thistlebottom” (a borrowing from Theodore Bernstein), “Ms. Retentive and her ilk,” “nitpickers,” “pedants,” “peevers,” “Prescriptistan,“ “purists,” “purists, who are often ignoramuses,” “rock-ribbed Yankees,” “schoolmarm,” “self-appointed guardians,” “self-appointed maven,” “self-proclaimed defenders of high standards,” “self-proclaimed purists,” “schoolteachers,” “spinster schoolteacher,” “snobs,” “snoots,” “starchy Englishmen,” “sticklers,” “stuffiest prig,” “style mavens,” “traditionalists,” “the UofAllPeople Club,” and “usage nannies.”

And how curious that in offering high-minded advice, Pinker should still characterize someone on the other side of an argument as “your target.”


The most unusual material in The Sense of Style, a chapter on syntax trees, is likely to leave many readers lost in the woods and turning pages.³ What’s most valuable in the book can be had elsewhere, in Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose and in Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I think highly of Thomas and Turner’s book; I find Williams’s book less than friendly in its design (and because it’s a textbook, it’s ridiculously overpriced). But either book is a better choice than The Sense of Style.

The strangest detail I gleaned from this book: Pinker writes in Microsoft Word, with the grammar checker on.


December 22: I’ve written a coda to this review: Bad advice and misinformation.

¹ “[White] died in October 1985, and the 1979 third edition of The Elements of Style was the last to be published with his oversight”: Mark Garvey, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of “The Elements of Style” (2009). Pinker cites this book elsewhere in The Sense of Style.

² Pinker quotes once, briefly, from Wallace’s essay (on page 300) but gives no indication of its focus or argument.

³ Standard linguistics work. It’s unusual though in a book of writing instruction.

Related posts
Pinker on Strunk and White
Pullum on Strunk and White
McGrath on Pinker on Strunk and White
Steven Pinker, name-caller

[I use the title Garner’s Modern American Usage for all editions. The first edition was titled A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.]

comments: 4

Anonymous said...

How many angles can dance on the head of a pen?

Marketing by trashing the other guy is not positive, but rather crass politics played in a different arena. For "The Sense of Style" to be stylish, perhaps it could contribute to the discussion in a positive manner rather than argue and tear away?

Michael Leddy said...

A point I didn’t think to make in what I wrote: Pinker doesn’t seem to consider that some of those (so-called) pedants and peevers might be among his readers. So how might a writer try to win their agreement? There are better ways than by calling names.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes sir. But to eschew name calling to better an argument requires that the argument actually be better, not just different.

An old teacher of this old fool once taught that there are too many geniuses in the world, and too few productive geniuses to balance things out well.

As to "your target," is it not interesting how many arguments come from a militaristic background, such as "high ground?"

"A thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century" is humorous, for a thinking person might opt for style not Pinker's, or God forbid ignore his style for their own, or even try out a new style which the gods of style have not yet imagined.

Michael Leddy said...

Anon. your earlier comment prompted me to write a coda to this post, which I’ll put online tomorrow.

That subtitle grates on me: like the book, it establishes a divide between the knowing few and the dopey many.