Is that slim, ubiquitous little volume by Strunk and White obsolete? Have those elements that they so strictly defined as essential to good prose style changed and mutated with the advent of email, textspeak, emoji, and LOLcats?
Cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker’s latest book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century swoops in to answer these questions, and also to serve, perhaps, as a thoughtful, timely guide to writing with clear and purposeful style. Pinker is generous—he views the task of learning good style not as a quest into the perilous wilds of grammar, but as “a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography.” Strunk’s famous salvos (“Omit needless words,” most memorably) seem in comparison almost boot-camp commands. “Perfecting the craft [of writing] is a lifelong calling,” Pinker writes, “and mistakes are part of the game.”
Informed by his extensive background in cognitive science and linguistics, Pinker dissects all sorts of writing—a campus press release advertising a “panel on sex with four professors,” a newsletter by a birdseed salesman on Cape Cod, academic texts, a novel—to identify the components and patterns of good (and bad) style. And Pinker must be taking his own advice: The Sense of Style is remarkable for its verve, clarity, and ultimate accessibility.
Steven Pinker will be reading from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century at the Iowa City Public Library on September 22 at 7pm. Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His previous books include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is also Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.
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