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The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st… (2014)

de Steven Pinker

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1,2182712,405 (3.86)19
" A short and entertaining book on the modern art of writing well by New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care? In The Sense of Style, the bestselling linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker answers these questions and more. Rethinking the usage guide for the 21st century, Pinker doesn't carp about the decline of language or recycle pet peeves from the rulebooks of a century ago. Instead, he applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose. In this short, cheerful, and eminently practical book, Pinker shows how writing depends on imagination, empathy, coherence, grammatical knowhow,and an ability to savor and reverse-engineer the good prose of others. He replaces dogma about usage with reason and evidence, allowing writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, rather than robotically, being mindful of what they are designed to accomplish. Filled with examples of great and gruesome prose, Pinker shows us how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right"--"Pinker has a lot of ideas and sometimes controversial opinions about writing and in this entertaining and instructive book he rethinks the usage guide for the 21st century. Don't blame the internet, he says, good writing has always been hard. It requires imagination, taking pleasure in reading, overcoming the difficulty we all have in imagining what it's like to not know something we do know"--… (més)
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Has writing changed so much in the 21st Century? No, but this book is the first practical guide I’ve seen that supplements advice on how to be kind to your reader with the results of neurological research and studies of how readers cope with texts. Pinker also draws on ample evidence that writers from Shakespeare to Jane Austen blithely ignored many of the proscriptions we’ve been taught, and were right to do so.
One chapter that interested me, in particular, was the second, “A Window onto the World,” in which Pinker introduces what writing mavens call “classical style.” I’ll be looking more into this.
Pinker also shows that grammar, as it was taught to me, compresses into one concept what is now distinguished as three: grammatical categories (noun, verb), grammatical functions (subject, object, head—a term new to me—and modifier), and semantic categories and roles. Examples Pinker names of the latter are action, physical object, possessor, doer, and done-to.
Along the way, I found that I was overdue for a terminology update. What I learned was an adverb is now a modifier. And? That’s a coordinator, not a conjunction. These changes are not arbitrary, however, but serve to help think more clearly about how language works. That is, how a concept can move with as little hindrance as possible from one mind to another.
Pinker’s image for that process, by the way, is the web, the tree, and the string (the title of Chapter Four).
Another update: I’m old enough to remember having to diagram sentences in English class. Hated it. Pinker doesn’t miss it either. But that doesn’t mean every effort to analytically display syntax on the page is misguided. He presents two or three alternate possibilities.
In the final chapter, Pinker turns to specifics of right and wrong usage. Much of it felt liberating; I enjoyed learning that many of the pet peeves of English teachers and copy editors have no basis in linguistics nor the history of English usage. I have my reservations about a couple of his points. He calls the “that”/“which” distinction a “phony and ubiquitous rule,” but I find it useful nonetheless. He’s also too sanguine, in my view, about the singular use of “they.” I understand his argument, but one of the goals of good style is clarity, and there have been times when its use confused me.
Throughout this well-organized, challenging, and informative book, Pinker displays a humane spirit and a lively sense of humor. More than once, I had to put the book down to indulge in a hearty belly laugh.
I’m not going to throw out Strunk and White, Ted Bernstein, nor Donald Hall’s Writing Well (a personal favorite). I’ll continue to consult Fowler and the Chicago Manual of Style. But I’ll make space on my overcrowded shelves for this; it’s one of those books not only worth reading, but owning. I expect to consult it repeatedly. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
A great debunking of Miss Thistlebottom's hobgoblins, as well as excellent, practical advice for clear, classic prose writing. Not a reference guide per se, except for the last chapter, which I found valuable more as insight into a good writer and linguist's pet peeves (see, we all have them!). ( )
  Charon07 | Jul 16, 2021 |
Yet another style book, this one written by the famously knowledgeable psycholinguist Steven Pinker. His description of classic style is opaque and his explication of the linguistics of grammar gives both too much information and not enough to make it clear how school grammar gets it wrong. However, parts are delightful and I particularly liked his defense of the singular "they." It was a slog getting through the book, though. He's not as elegant a writer as he thinks he is. I still recommend it. ( )
  dmturner | Jun 29, 2020 |
I was thoroughly charmed by this well-written guide on how to write better. :)

Maybe it's because real language changes. Maybe it's because true clarity comes from the spaces between the words and not absolutely from the rules about the words.

But that's not to say that this cogent discussion on grammar isn't rife with practical examples and great reflection, because it does. It just happens to bring up the fact that one generation's Haberdash is another's charming fireside chat. Moreover, it uses humor, skepticism, and common sense to throw out the grammar nazism and return us back to the firm hand of insight and delight.

For writing should not be a chore.

It should edify, clarify, and wrap us up in a warm comforter and hand us a favorite beverage and ramble on about what it really loved about its day. Am I clear?

Rules are for chumps, yo. But learn them first before you break them. :)

(Advice I think I will always have to take to heart.) ( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
What makes writing good? Is is a pedantic knowledge of of all the rules and having perfect grammar and punctuation or understanding those rules and knowing when to bend them? Writing well is not an easy task, ask any author who has a deadline, as it demands consistency and coherence. In this book the linguist Steve Pinker brings us the latest scientific understanding about what makes our language great.

The book is full of examples of how to write well, as well as illustrations of how not to do it. His wit and humour underlies all that he writes, as he outlines best practice, and then mentions that he disobeyed the rules in the paragraph before and did you notice? He has selected a number of cartoons to illustrate his points and has a series of anecdotes to reinforce the points that he is making, the most amusing of which was where an academic had written a critic of Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, pointing out all her grammatical errors; he then had another author write an article highlighting the errors he had made. It could have gone on forever…

Overall it was worth reading. It is written from an American linguistic perspective, but he does acknowledge the subtle differences between their language and ours. The English language is an immense too that has layers and layers of complexity and subtlety, and this goes so way to give modern writers a framework.

One to dip into again I think. ( )
  PDCRead | Apr 6, 2020 |
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I love style manuals. Ever since I was assigned Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in an introductory psychology course, the writing guide has been among my favorite literary genres. It’s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the craft of writing. It’s also that credible guidance on writing must itself be well written, and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice. William Strunk’s course notes on writing, which his student E. B. White turned into their famous little book, was studded with gems of self-exemplification such as “Write with nouns and verbs,” “Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end,” and best of all, his prime directive, “Omit needless words.”
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" A short and entertaining book on the modern art of writing well by New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care? In The Sense of Style, the bestselling linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker answers these questions and more. Rethinking the usage guide for the 21st century, Pinker doesn't carp about the decline of language or recycle pet peeves from the rulebooks of a century ago. Instead, he applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose. In this short, cheerful, and eminently practical book, Pinker shows how writing depends on imagination, empathy, coherence, grammatical knowhow,and an ability to savor and reverse-engineer the good prose of others. He replaces dogma about usage with reason and evidence, allowing writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, rather than robotically, being mindful of what they are designed to accomplish. Filled with examples of great and gruesome prose, Pinker shows us how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right"--"Pinker has a lot of ideas and sometimes controversial opinions about writing and in this entertaining and instructive book he rethinks the usage guide for the 21st century. Don't blame the internet, he says, good writing has always been hard. It requires imagination, taking pleasure in reading, overcoming the difficulty we all have in imagining what it's like to not know something we do know"--

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