A New Help for Stylish Writing

Style manuals are both bane and blessing to writers of all types. I like Strunk and White’s classic volume, The Elements of Style. I’ve also benefited from Joseph Williams’ Style and A.P. Martinich’s Philosophical Writing. However, many times I wonder why some rules exist and whether they are always helpful. 

Sometimes the rules in style manuals seem to be more focused on obtaining polite compliance with convention rather than improving communication.

With that in mind, Steven Pinker sets out on a more helpful quest in his recent book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century! This book is neither reference manual nor remedial writing guide. Pinker states, “Like the classic guides, it is designed for people who know how to write and want to write better,” as well as “for readers who seek no help in writing by are interested in letters and literature and curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.”

Contrary to many of those who wring their hands over the prospects of style with each passing generation, Pinker paints a more positive outlook for the English language. He notes that much of the handwringing over grammar is generated when convention has shifted and the norms of an earlier style guide violated. This is much less significant than some grammarians would allow us to believe.

Pinker recognizes convention, but instead of placing grammatical rules as the primary objective for good writing, he offers style as the summum bonum of a solid sentence. 

There are three reasons style matters. (1) It gets the message across. (2) It earns trust by demonstrating the author’s concern for accuracy and clarity. (3) It adds beauty to the world. Thus the most important question is not whether a passive voice is used, but whether the intended meaning is conveyed in a comely and precise manner.


The book is divided into five chapters. In the first chapter, Pinker reverse engineers several passages of good writing. For each he shows why they convey their message and some critical aspects that readers can appropriate. This is certainly not exhaustive, but here Pinker is training his reader to be a better reader. Chapter two outlines the way classic style, with its conventions, is helpful to communicating meaning. Far from establishing a deconstructive attitude toward language with a cry to abolish syntax, Pinker calls for doing the basic things well. Those fundamentals of style, after all, are conventions that often point toward the way communication occurs.

Pinker’s third chapter treats “the curse of knowledge,” which is the real problem authors have when they know much more about their topic and its back story than the reader. Confusion is often sown instead of clarity because of technical terms and assumed knowledge. The point of this chapter is important, since specialization in disciplines often makes interdisciplinary communication and presentations to popular audiences difficult.

Each of the first three chapters are relatively short and simple. Chapters 4, 5, and 6, however, are much larger and more cumbersome. The fourth chapter moves beyond a basic discussion of style into linguistics. Following his own advice, Pinker does well in explaining terms as he goes along. He proposes an alternative way to diagram sentences than the horizontal arrangement with slanted lines branching off to show parts of speech. Instead, according to Pinker, language functions more like a tree, branching downward from initial concepts into new realms of meaning. He makes two significant points in this discussion. First, visually representing grammatical constructions can be helpful and sometimes improve understandings. Second, the “traditional” sentence diagram is somewhat limited because it misapplies categories at times. The neat rules set up for parts of speech and there function have messy exceptions. Understanding the way the human mind processes the web of meaning in texts can help writers to create more clear prose.

In Chapter 5, Pinker examines how to apply the concept of “arcs of coherence” to ensure writing conveys its meaning. Since these ideas are best represented in the negative, this chapter spends a great deal of time unpacking examples of bad writing, showing how a lack of clarity comes from placing the pieces of language in an irregular order. His discussion here is much like that in Williams’ Style, but he presents the concepts based on cognitive linguistics instead of preference, which give more weight and import to his recommendations.

In the final chapter Pinker goes after the sacred cows of many grammarians and presents some of his own norms. Here is uses historical research to show that many “rules” were merely preferences put into style manuals and grammar books to help establish some standards. In many cases, restrictions that are necessary to assist elementary writers learn the craft were transferred as inviolable truths necessary for communication. Pinker shows how some of these are unnecessary. At other times, language has changed and so the rules should be modified, requiring a redaction to the grammatical gospel according to Strunk and White. Still, in this behemoth chapter, there are a number of clear rules Pinker sets down that writers should follow to ensure clear communication, recognizing that some of the rules are provisional and linked to contemporary English usage. Pinker concludes the volume with an encouragement to lighten up on grammar and not nitpick, the fate of the world does not depend on the use of the Oxford comma. This, perhaps, is the most significant takeaway from the book.

The Sense of Style starts punchy and drags a bit toward the end. There are a dearth of section headings and breaking places in the many pages of careful linguistic explanation. This makes the book tough slogging after the first three chapters. 


Pinker makes significant contributions to the style discussion. First, he presents some of the cognitive linguistics data that help make sense of prose structure. This is done in a clear manner that communicates well and is helpful for contemporary writers. Second, he affirms beginning with basic style manuals, but shows how good writing may and should move beyond. This is helpful as an academic and popular writer. Third, Pinker demonstrates good writing throughout. The prose is punchy and alive. It is interesting, even when the content is heady and a bit dry. This is a demonstration of how to make bland content flavorful without being gimmicky.

I affirm this book and recommend it for good writers that want to get better. This will not be the first manual I pull off my shelf, but I hope I am a better writer for having read it and will likely read it again in the future.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.