The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Reviewed on , book by Steven Pinker

Especially enjoyed the first few chapters: Write in a way that makes it easy for the mind’s eye to engage, both for pleasure and retention. The complexity of the subject matter is no excuse. An example of appealing to the mind’s eye is from the book ‘Switch’ where instead of referring to people’s emotional side and rational side with abstract terms, they use the analogy of an elephant (emotion) and rider (rational). You should guide your reader’s viewpoint to make them feel smart—not inferior from struggling with complex sentences. A typical source of complexity is the use of ‘zombie nouns’: verbs and adjectives converted into nouns. For instance, the sentence ‘comprehension checks were used as exclusion criteria’ certainly doesn’t guide the reader’s viewpoint. The zombie nouns here are ‘comprehension’ and ‘exclusion’. It reads much better as: ‘We excluded people who failed to understand the instructions’. Often we use zombie nouns because we’re afraid to use pronouns, ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘they’—but there’s no fault in that. Pronouns can be used as subjects, enabling the use of simple verbs, instead of the complex zombie nouns like ‘cancellation’. Take this easy to skim and ignore warning label on a generator:

Mild Exposure to CO can result in accumulated damage over time.
Extreme Exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms.
Infants, children, older adults, and people with health conditions are more easily affected by Carbon Monoxide and their symptoms are more severe.

Adopting a concrete and conversational style turns it from dull to lucid, with the potential of saving lives:

Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES.
Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide. This is a poison you cannot see or smell.
NEVER use inside a home or garage, EVEN IF doors and windows are open. Only use OUTSIDE and far away from windows, doors, and vents.

From Pinker’s vantage point of an academic in both psychology and linguistics, his description of vocabulary is particularly fascinating. Humans have a working memory of only 5-7 slots. To deal with higher-order reasoning, we ‘chunk’ complex concept into new concepts. A ‘container of other things’ becomes a ‘box’ and a ‘candle’ represents a ‘wax stick that can be set on fire to illuminate’. Talking about a ‘container of other things’ and a ‘wax stick that can be set on fire’ occupies more mental working memory slots than working with ‘box’ and ‘candle’. Using only 2 slots, instead of all of them, allows us the space to work with yet other abstractions concurrently:

Chunking is not just a trick for improving memory; it’s the lifeblood of higher intelligence.

The stronger your vocabulary of a domain, the more complex reasoning you can juggle in your head; the faster you can think. Chunking ‘slow destructive change, typically in a subtle way’ into ‘insidious’ makes it easier to stack with other concepts than having the whole concept’s description in your head. Good engineers do this with their domain-specific jargon. Fiction writers adopt vocabulary to describe scenery and astute descriptions of the inner-workings of their characters.

The last concept I found useful was that of ‘arcs of coherence’. Pinker says to locate the ‘topic threads’ that run throughout your text. Guide them along with your argument, to make them feel smart—not puzzled.

The latter chapters turn quite technical with pages filled with trees analyzing syntax. I ended up mostly skimming those. While I could use a brush-up in English grammar, it’s not something I’m motivated to do this time around. That said, I extracted a lot of value from the first few chapters. I may not be the audience, but this is why the book gets an overall 3/5, despite some 5/5 chapters.