I’ve dog-eared and scribbled on Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century so much that it’s time to buy a new one.
Here are My Top Ten Teaser Take-Aways:
“Those Young People Today”
“Complaints about the decline of language go at least as far back as the printing press . . . . [S]ome of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the writing skills of the young.” (pages 5-6)
The Joy of . . . Writing
“To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.” (page 9)
Careful or Compulsive?
“If someone tells you that Liz wants to move out of Seattle because it’s a rainy city, you don’t interpret him as claiming that it rains there twenty-four hours a day just because he didn’t qualify his statement with relatively rainy or somewhat rainy.” (page 44)
“[G]ood writers reach for fresh similes and metaphors that keep the reader’s sensory cortexes lit up. Shakespeare advises against ‘adding another hue unto the rainbow’; Dickens describes a man ‘with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of someone else’; Nabakov has Lolita plopping into a seat, ‘her legs splayed, starfish style.’” (page 48)
“The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, –ation, or –ing. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmance; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement.” (page 50)
The Walking Dead
“But it’s not just academics who loose their zombies on the world. In response to a hurricane which threatened the Republican National Convention in 2012, Florida governor Rick Scott told the press, ‘There is not any anticipation that there will be a cancellation’ . . . And in 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry announced, ‘The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our efforts in order to find a way to facilitate . . . .’” (page 51)
“[T]here is nothing wrong with a news report that uses the passive voice to say, ‘Helicopters were flown in to put out the fires.’ The reader does not need to be informed that Bob was flying one of the helicopters.” (page 55)
“Wording should not be varied capriciously, because in general people assume that if someone uses two different words they’re referring to two different things.” (page 157)
“The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal of lexicographers but emerge as an implicit consensus of a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors.” (page 193) (Note that Pinker is himself the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel.)
“[W]e 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.” (page 304)