Autumn is book season, of course. When the nights are getting darker and we all get more contemplative. So, if you’re feeling in the mood for something a bit high-brow which might even be genuinely useful, Steven Pinker’s new tome, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, could be for you.
Pinker is a psycholinguist who teaches at Harvard and his new book is focuses on cognition, the impromptu mental adjustments we perform when trying to organise and articulate complex thoughts. Flick through the book and you’ll find analytical diagrams about sentence structure, with arrows looping round in circles and phrases splayed along diagonal axes. But it’s not all like that. Far from it… It also includes jokes, cartoons, and our vicarious favourite (and every writer’s guilty pleasure) examples of disaster-prone writing.
One of our favourites is a sentence sabotaged only by the lack of a humble little comma. The summary of a world tour by Peter Ustinov which allegedly included “encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”. Spot the (un)deliberate mistake?
Far easier to spot, was when President Bush once asked the apparently serious question: “Is our children learning?”
But Pinker’s clever and occasionally funny account of the messes we make when trying to cope with the irregularity and irrationality of English grammar shouldn’t make us feel bad about mistakes we’ve made or will inevitably make. In fact, despite a fair amount of pedantry going on (Dangling Modifiers and Possessive Antecedents anyone?), he says himself that getting hung up on rules will strangle everyone’s creativity.
“It’s about clarity, which is not to neglect grace and beauty—language ought to be a source of pleasure,” he writes. “When a striking image effectively conveys an idea or a feeling, you simultaneously know what the author is trying to communicate and you get that shiver of pleasure that makes reading an enjoyable experience.”
Pinker is also critical of academic prose, legalese and cultural critics. Not to mention politicians that torment language such as when John Kerry recently announced that Obama was “desirous of trying to see how we can make our efforts in order to find a way to facilitate”, which merely meant, Pinker guesses, that “the president wanted to help”.
At its best, The Sense of Style is a comedy of linguistic bad manners. Pinkers stated aim is writing a book for people “who can already write, but want to write better”. And that’s all of us.
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century is out now.
Have you read it? Likey or no likey, let us know what you think…