Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Some folks learn all the wonderful things about grammar within the hallowed halls of a tertiary institution: I learnt about grammar in the trenches, dug in deep and dirty in newspaper publishing as well as editing piles of books for small presses. Every battle-hardened and weary wordsmith out there will tell you there is more than one way to learn your craft and sharpen your pen, and it's a seemingly never-ending battle against bad grammar and just plain old awful writing.

It's quite possible to ask, do we even need another style manual when there are so many out there, filled with rules and regulations about how you should or should not write? Steven Pinker doesn't think so, and The Sense of Style has been on my radar for a while now.

The problem I have with most style guides is that my eyes glaze over after a few pages and then the book ends up forgotten on a shelf somewhere, making a breeding place for silverfish and dust mites. Not so with The Sense of Style. While Pinker certainly tackles the eye-glazing topic of grammar, he does so in a way that with careful reading (and using his examples) he illustrates how the structure of a sentence works, and also why it's important to understand this. He then goes into how to improve coherence in your writing, and once again, the examples are gold.

He touches also on the tone of our writing – how we must decide whether to use a more relaxed style or remain quite formal, depending on the message and its recipients, whether we're writing a status update on social media or a more formal application for a position at a company. How we use language matters, and often says a lot about us.

In addition, Pinker discusses how language is fluid, how even the greats from the past have broken apparent "rules" (and even where these rules originate). While he is not dogmatic, as some wordsmiths I've encountered are, he will justify any stances he makes. What I take away from this is to be aware of not only the rules but the conventions, and yes, the conventions do shift (like my unfavourite, "literally" as not quite having its literal meaning). He explains why in some cases you should be less of a grammar Nazi, or in the case of "literally", while it still is a good idea to rather not use the word figuratively (due to unintended, somewhat hilarious results).

I found the list of common errors at the end, with their explanations, useful, as well as the glossary. (Can you use affect/effect or lay/lie correctly?) Particularly, his closing line struck me as being profound: "And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world."

I'm totally down with that. :-) This book has a place in my permanent collection.

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