Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Winter 2015 - Volume 18 Number 1
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Steven Pinker
New York: 2014
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

“You’ve either got or you haven’t got style.”
– Sammy Cahn & Jimmy van Heusen, 1964

When Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra sang about style in the mid-1960s film musical “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” there was little doubt that the three possessed that elusive quality at the highest level of their craft. Such virtuoso performances are rare, even in Hollywood. When it comes to the printed word, however, the standards are not always so clearly met. In fact, the standards are seldom even clearly defined. Writing style in the twenty-first (or any other) century is ethereal, ephemeral, evanescent and essentially contested. Some people like alliteration and some people don’t.

I

Style guides come in all shapes, sizes, colours and textures. Ever since Johnson (1755), there have been increasingly annotated dictionaries which contain histories of language, instructions on syntax and pithy little essays on putting “the proper words in proper places” (Gowers, 1965, viii). Such was A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), H. J. Fowlers’ splendid contribution to communicative competence and a supreme standard for the subject until … it wasn’t.

Some guides are produced by private sector publishers and intended to give students and prospective authors a refresher course in writing. They commonly include sections on topics from grammar and punctuation to the creation of research designs and the proper documentation of online sources. They provide competing citation protocols as promoted by organizations such as the Modern Language Association, the American Psychological Association and other authorities whose fetishism for in-text citations is, I fear, part of a nefarious conspiracy to make us stupid.

I, of course, am an ardent and necessarily quixotic supporter of The Chicago Manual of Style (2010), which remains the most intelligent system of documentation, but which seems now to have been overtaken and is destined to be destroyed by newer practices that are more computer-friendly. They are evidence that technology is now in the saddle and it riding our species to, perhaps, a more profound illiteracy. To my deep regret, the technological imperative now dominates this journal while, elsewhere, the Chicago Manual is being well and truly “spiked.” So, since technology seems singularly ill-equipped to handle useful footnotes and endnotes, we are being compelled to yield to new-fangled devices the main effect of which is to break up the flow of a written narrative. Thus, for all practical purposes, footnotes and endnotes―often among the best parts of many serious books and articles―are all but outlawed.

I have one of the monsters at hand (Faigley, Graves and Graves, 2012). It purports to be a “brief” handbook, but runs to well over 600 pages. Even so, it manages to leave out a lot of essential information. What’s more, if it isn’t already obsolete, it soon will be.

Then again, there are some proud American additions to this admittedly elastic genre. William Strunk’s The Elements of Style is generally held to be an invaluable resource. A “quiet book” (Angell, 2000, p. x), it comes in a number of editions including the original (1918) and various revisions such as the unnecessarily illustrated version (Strunk & White, 2005). One of my personal favourites, however, was Martin & Ohmann’s then freshly published The Logic and Rhetoric of Exposition (1963). It was my principal guide throughout my compulsory freshman English course and it served me well for some time afterward. It made it to a third edition in 1969 and, in my view, deserved a better fate (it now can be purchased in hardcover for as little as $2.00 through some of those bookstore-destroying online booksellers).

Not finally, but as far as I am prepared to go at this time, there are items such as the University of Oxford’s Style Guide (2014) which, we are told, “forms part of the University’s branding toolkit, which contains guidance on the University’s visual identity.” While the document itself may display all the necessary virtues its compilers intended, I shall never find out for myself, since its advertisement has such a hideous “style.”

II

Steven Pinker has recently added another, newer, smarter and better volume to the collection. It shares some qualities of the older, more erudite and more narrowly judgemental volumes; but, it is occasionally as mirthful as was Dr. Johnson in his happier moments and it is more self-consciously sceptical of style manuals that purport to teach the teach the “right” way to write. A bit old-fashioned myself, I am ambivalent about its inclusion of a few cartoons from strips such as “Dilbert” and “Calvin and Hobbes”; but, they are not especially annoying and mostly respect the well-ordered and sensible text.

Pinker, for anyone unfamiliar with him, has written some best-selling books in what is known as “evolutionary psychology,” though he seems to prefer to be known as a “cognitive scientist” today. His books are masterly exercises in the popularization of science. I am a bit ambivalent about them. As surprising as it may seem, he has involved himself in a number of controversies in which I believe he behaved rather badly, particularly in an unpleasant attack on a rival against whom he appears to have had some animus—the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) whom, as a matter of full disclosure, I liked and admired more than I do Pinker. With these caveats in mind, then, let me proceed to the book.

At the beginning, Pinker asks two basic questions:

  • Why is a new style book needed?
  • What does it mean to write well in the twenty-first century?

The answer to the first question is pretty obvious. The response to the second occupies the bulk of the book.

One reason for a new book on style is not merely the fact that the English language is changing. After all, it has been transforming, deforming and reforming since long before Johnson set about his monumental task almost three centuries ago. Rather, the main reason is that language has recently been changing and growing with previously unimagined speed, in different ways and for different reasons.

Barely twenty years ago, for instance, the number of English words was set at just over 475,000 by the well-received unabridged Webster's Third New International Dictionary together with its 1993 addendum. The Global Language Monitor (2014), however, predicted that, on New Year’s Day, 2015, the number would be 1,030,475, including “Web 2.0” (which isn’t even a word, but a word and a number). And, of course, the number has surely grown between the time I entered these words on my keyboard and the moment when they “went live” into the pixelverse so that you could read them. Since our standards of writing have changed so much that we are now accepting words, numbers, symbols (“hashtags” and “hearts” for example) and even “emoticons” as legitimate additions to our lexicon, no conventional proffering of advice can now possibly suffice.

The doubling of the “population” of English-language words is of obvious interest to an evolutionary scientist, but it also provides an important “existential” question, which boils down to this: Apart from academics engaged in the study of language, who cares? With the stunning growth of technology which offers alternative methods of communication from the telephone and the television to emerging texting and tweeting in which conventions of grammar and spelling are deemed irrelevant, it is plain that larger and larger numbers of people at least ignore and are even hostile to “proper” English. Some lament the decline in formal grammar and, paradoxically, the fact that the functional vocabulary of most college students and many college administrators seems to be shrinking. No matter that we have doubled and will soon have tripled the number of words at our disposal (so to speak), it is hard to spend more than a few minutes with any group of English teachers without someone complaining about the communicative incompetence, shriveled vocabulary and expository impotence of most young people today.

III

Pinker, for one, has little time for the caustic critics who insist that the language arts are in an irretrievable state of disrepair, inevitable decline and irredeemable degradation; but, he also argues positively that style matters.

According to Pinker (and I believe he is quite right), any nostalgia for a time when ordinary people spoke “properly” is misplaced. The maintenance of the Queen’s English has been, at best, in the hands (or mouths) of a select number, even before the broadcasts of the BBC. Indeed, what we call grammatical and spelling rules are contingencies, just made up by a special class of arguably anal-retentive scribes less than two centuries ago. If anything, our written expression has become more regularized since the days of Hardy and Dickens (never mind Shakespeare or Chaucer).

Take, for example, a song of delicious revenge that I felt compelled to sing in the shower this morning, the lyrics of which are as follows:

Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee, ah saw thee?
Cho.
On Ilkla Mooar baht ’at
Cho.
Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee, ah saw thee?
Cho.
Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee?
Cho.
On Ilkla Mooar baht ’at
Cho.
On Ilkla Mooar baht ’at
Cho.
On Ilkla Mooar baht ’at
Cho.
Tha’s been a cooartin’ Mary Jane
Cho.
Tha’s bahn’ to catch thy deeath o’ cowd
Cho.
Then us’ll ha’ to bury thee
Cho.
Then t’worms’ll come an’ eyt thee up
Cho.
Then t’ducks’ll come an’ eyt up t’worms
Cho.
Then us’ll go an’ eyt up t’ducks
Cho.
Then us’ll all ha’ etten thee
Cho.
That’s wheear we get us ooan back
Cho.

The song, of course, is commonly called the National Anthem of Yorkshire. It is frequently sung in pubs all over the world (or at least pubs where Yorkshiremen gather). What are we to make of such past and present dialects?

For Pinker, I suspect, the answer would be to make the most of them while they’re still around. Linguistic diversity is, after all, the stuff and substance of linguistic evolution and anyone who would try to impose arbitrary and mainly obsolete, if not, unfounded rules on it might as well try to tell a species of plant or animal not to mutate.

Specific bugaboos for Pinker include the alleged sin of a split infinitive with which he finds nothing at all wrong or the ban on ending sentences with prepositions which Sir Winston Churchill cheerfully mocked in his sentence: “This is something up with which I will not put!” He also makes rather light of neologisms that find verbs converted into nouns (or vice versa). Purists, he says, recoil from arriviste verbs such as to mask, to panic, to mentor and to screen (as in a film). They also wince at almost all verbs ending with the suffix “ize” including finalize, personalize and prioritize. They disdain what language scholar Helen Sword calls “zombie nouns,” allegedly illegitimately derived from verbs and that can be detected by noticing their suffixes (commonly –ance, -ation, and -ment as in “performance,” “adoration,” and “postponement”).

Worrying excessively about such matters elicits scorn from Steven Pinker. Change can be toxic or it can be tonic. Some mutations are beneficial and others lead to extinction. To judge the nature and direction of any parole (de Saussure, 1986: p. 9-10) as though a language could be frozen like some ancient amber (fossilized tree resin valued for its colour and beauty―especially if it has an antique organism locked within) is pedantic, pompous, presumptuous, pretentious and positively pernickety.

His easygoing way with words, however, does not mean that Pinker is a linguistic anarchist, nihilist or even a thoughtless relativist. For all that he is prepared to cut some slack to slang, to consent to changing conventions and to admit that “when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum” (he’s no big fan of “political correctness” either), Steven Pinker is an eloquent advocate for “style.”

Style, he asserts, is tremendously important. People have either got or they haven’t got it (or, at least the capacity for it). He also has his preferred style, which he calls “classical.” It doesn’t have much to do with Catullus or Cicero or even with Jane Austen. Instead, it refers mainly to a way of expressing oneself that is “an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.” (Incidentally, three of his five words ending in “ese” annoyed the spell-check device in my computer and now display a dark red line on my screen indicating that they are somehow “wrong”―an error that doesn’t bother me at all.)

What Pinker advocates could well be considered “common sense.” Flagrant violations of simple grammatical rules are, he thinks, properly to be corrected. “We can all agree,” he says, “that George W. Bush spoke incorrectly when he asked, ‘Is our children learning?’―and when he used inebriating to mean exhilarating,’ referred to the citizens of Greece as ‘Grecians’ and lamented policies that ‘vulcanize’ (rather than ‘Balkanize’) society. Even Bush,” he points out, “in a self-deprecating speech, agreed that these were errors.”

Classical style, however, is valued for its pragmatism and utility. First, he argues, “it ensures that writers will get their messages across” and thereby saves time, avoids inconveniences and calamities and reduces errors, frustration and waste. Second, he claims that “style earns trust” by reassuring readers that their correspondent cares enough about them to be careful about what they say and how they say it. Third, he says, “style … adds beauty to the world.” This last, of course, is foundational; as Pinker declares: “this thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.”

IV

About a decade after I had more-or-less grown up with Martin and Ohmann, Pinker experienced his initial exposure to the systematic study of style when he was assigned Strunk and White by his instructor in Introductory Psychology. Pinker’s scientific and philosophical orientation is such that he easily accepts that “good writers are blessed with an innate dose of fluency with syntax and memory for words.” Of course, he is quick to add that, while “skills in English composition may not come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere.” The natural (genetic gift) must somehow be nurtured. If nothing else, he says, “good writers are avid readers.” Unprompted, innate capacities remain undeveloped.

In his time, Pinker read Strunk and White assiduously and with such a critical focus that their book not only inspired him to embark on a path that would bring him into contact with more and more examples of useful guides and brilliant applications. It also led him to criticize the model that had motivated him. Almost from the beginning, Pinker reveals the faults in the book he prized. It “misdefined terms such as phrase, participle, and relative clause … and in steering their readers away from passive verbs and toward active transitive ones [Strunk and White] botched their examples of both.” I am happy to say that he even provides a criticism of the principle: “we now know,” he adds (and I wholeheartedly agree), that “telling writers to avoid the passive voice is bad advice.”

So, what are we to make of a style book that contains errors aplenty when it is held up as an exemplary case in the genre by a writer who plainly wants to find his place in the iconography of stylistics? The answer, I think, is to graciously accept all the admonitions, gentle suggestions, criticisms of others and generally successful efforts to build a cogent argument about what good writing is, without becoming encumbered with fixed rules and static formulae.

Pinker seems to believe that good writers are born, but they must also be made and, in the end, it is not the mastery of technique that matters as much as the sometimes childlike curiosity about what words mean, how they fit together and how we can use them to illuminate the world. Upon finishing The Sense of Style, I decided that I would put it aside for a month or two and then read it again. It was a good decision. On the second pass, I did not read for “content,” but allowed myself to flow with the style itself. As I did, I was reminded of the marvellous American poet, John Ciardi (1916-1986) whose column, “Manner of Speaking” delighted me weekly as I received my copies of the Saturday Review. Several of Ciardi’s pieces have stuck with me for close to fifty years.

One was entitled “Hanging Around Words. It explained in some detail why it made no sense to say that the boats arrived at the rendez-vous point in the middle of the ocean. The reason is that to “arrive” somewhere means to come ashore―something that plainly can’t happen in the middle of a body of water. I have meticulously avoided making that mistake (though I’ve made many thousands of others); but, that wasn’t Ciardi’s point. He meant to instill in people a joyful inquisitiveness or (pace Pinker) to stimulate their innate desire for exploration. He certainly did that for me and, though Steven Pinker was barely an adolescent at the time, I like to think that he would find in John Ciardi―poet, essayist, editor and etymologist―not a fellow cognitive scientist, but a kindred spirit, someone who can combine great seriousness with great fun.

On that second reading, by the way, I managed to drop my residual political resentments and philosophical differences with Steven Pinker and let him carry me on his own particular wave. It was a pleasant ride—as much an appreciation of his purpose as a reading of the practical hints and advice he provides. Style, it seems, is something that you’ve got or haven’t got … but even those of us who are clumsy in expression and sometimes “lost for words” or, at least, for the “right” ones can take solace in enjoying the finer points of others.

References

Angell, R. 2000. “Foreword” in W. Strunk & E. White. The elements of style, 4th ed. New York, NY: Longman.

de Saussure, F. (1986). Course in general linguistics (3rd ed.). (R. Harris, Trans.). Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company. (Original work published 1972).

Faigley, L., R. Graves & H. Graves. 2014. The brief Penguin handbook, 3rd Canadian ed. Toronto, Canada: Pearson.

Fowler, H. 1926. A dictionary of modern English usage. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gowers, E. 1963. Preface to the revised edition of H. Fowler, A dictionary of modern English usage. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, S. (In process). A dictionary of the English language: A digital edition of the 1755 classic by Samuel Johnson. Retrieved October 21, 2014 from http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/

Martin, H. & R. Ohmann. 1963. The logic and rhetoric of exposition, revised, ed. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Merriam-Webster. 1993. Webster’s third international dictionary, unabridged. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from http://www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/book.pl?w3.htm

Strunk, W. 1918. The elements of style. Ithaca, NY: W. P. Humphrey.

Strunk, W. & E. B. White. 2005. The elements of style. Illustrated by M. Kalman.New York, NY: Penguin.

University of Chicago. 2010. The Chicago manual of style, 16th edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

University of Oxford. 2014. University of Oxford style guide. Available online at http://www.ox.ac.uk/public-affairs/style-guide


Howard A. Doughty teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com

Contents