A short and entertaining book on the modern art of writing well by New York Times best-selling 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 best-selling 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.
©2014 Steven Pinker (P)2014 Penguin Group
Family father, neuroscientist, and non-fiction addict.
As a scientist I spend much of my time writing scholarly articles. When Pinker, who I admire for his scientific contribution and perhaps even more for his writing skills, wrote this book about writing I was naturally interested. The book’s focus is on the classical writing style which is probably best characterized as a sort of writing philosophy. According to this philosophy your job as an author is to convey something you know to the reader. To do so you must put yourself in the boots of your reader. If you try to explain something in a language (or technical jargon) that your reader does not understand then you will fail. Indeed a good chunk of the book is devoted to the curse of knowledge; you erroneously assume that your reader knows what you know. Pinker gives concrete advice on how to avoid this.
Pinker, I think, is a relatively liberal writer. The focus is, and should be, on what makes your reader understand; not on obsessively following every rule in the rule books. In other words, if you are a language purist who thinks that starting a sentence with “And” is a capital crime, then this book will cause you much suffering.
Having said that, Pinker do devote the last chapter to rules that ought not to be violated unless you really know what you are doing. For instance I learned that I was wrong to use commas when there is just a pause in the spoken sentence. I also learned that: serial commas are a good thing; how to use semicolons; as well as the proper use of many improperly used.
It is a bit ironic that my one problem with the book was that there was too much jargon in it which sometimes made it difficult for me to understand. To me, as a native Swede, it seemed as if Pinker sometimes feel into the knowledge trap that he instructs us to avoid. Maybe it is just me who did not listen carefully on my English lessons, but I would occasionally have liked more information about basic grammar concepts.
Still, all in all this was a worthwhile read which I am sure will help me develop my writing
Steven Pinker brings delight to an amazing breadth of intellectual disciplines. So when I saw he had focused on writing, I had high expectations. They were met.
It isn't your father's writing handbook. (My mother was an English Professor so I have seen quite a few.} Nor is it a how-to technical manual like the Hargrave Handbook.
Instead (like other Pinker books) this works from deep principles, to solve the daunting problems of written communication.
I also bought the book, so I could easily refer back to areas that I want to apply better in my own writing.
Steven Pinker's wit and explanations, as usual, are astounding. His expansive knowledge and explanations for how to have a sense of style are very helpful, no matter what your profession might be. Even if you "never" write, the book is still an eye opener and even a motivation to pick up writing, whether it be blog posts, letters, articles or books.
The biggest mistake in the book is how it's read. I am sorry if I am doing Mr. Morey an injustice here, but his reading was absolutely horrifying. Ironically, he reads a book about how to write (and which several times mocks things like officialese and legalese), exactly as if he were reading a legal document.
The book is read in a flat monotone that makes it seem as if Arthur Morey was absolutely bored to death. But this is not a book to be bored about, and certainly doesn't deserve this treatment. I will have to re-read the book on my own, simply because I fell asleep far too often during the reading.
Disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of both Steven Pinker and Arthur Morey, and the combination of excellent writing and perfect narration they represent for me made this an automatic purchase and an easy 5-star rating.
What's more, I'm a language geek. I love grammar. I love writing. A whole book about the way English (note: American English) works, complete with abstruse technical terms and PDF charts, is a delight to me.
I mention all this because The Sense of Style is clearly not everybody's cup of tea, no matter how brilliantly read.
And it is brilliantly read, but still, I had to consult the charts several times, and listen to the whole book twice before some of its more abstract ideas sank in. (Yes, sank. Not sunk.) I thought I was well-versed in English, but Pinker covers a bunch of advanced concepts of language structure and the mind that simply weren't understood way back when I was in "grammar" school. I learned a lot. I'll probably end up buying a visual version for reference.
It's fair to say that Pinker's work is all biased to the political left, and to a liberal and progressive view of the world in general, and language in particular. His cultural references place his origins so squarely in time that I knew he was born in 1954 without checking Wikipedia, and I knew that he tended to the hippie side of the spectrum without looking at a picture of him. He is absolutely not a prescriptive grammarian, and readers interested in a conservative view of language and culture might find this book hard to swallow.
Not me, though. This book immediately changed the way I read, and is having a growing impact on how I write. It confirmed me in some of my language biases, showed me the error of my ways in others, and gave me tools for understanding more clearly than ever what makes bad writing bad and good writing beautiful.
As an editor, avid reader and occasional writer, I appreciate and agree with most of what Stephen Pinker has to say about the language, the rules that govern it and the myths and misconceptions that surround it. But in the few areas where we disagree, I find his arguments often unconvincing and occasionally hypocritical and even ironic. Even so, I did learn and thing or two, so it was a worthwhile investment of my time. He is a brilliant man.
The content of this book is indispensable, and the narration of the audiobook suits the writing style. If you are looking for help and formulating your writing, and are confused by some of the ambiguous usage advice, you may find resolution and an ally.
I love to read books, and when I can't read a book I love listening to them.
This is the first audio book that I have listed to by Pinker. Usually i read his books.
Mad evolutionary biologist by profession, an atheist, a skeptic, a book lover & a cat lady. And a sci-fi geek of course, they're the best.
One of the best guides to writing in English I have ever read (or listened to). Perfect for both the natives and foreigners. I will definitely return to it a few times for everything to really sink down.
"There is scarcely any passion without struggle." Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
Audiobook starts out by saying that the author-referenced charts, etc. are contained in PDF form accessible upon purchase of audiobook.
I will modify this review AFTer I have and listen to it in its entirety.
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