Review Of The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker—Guest Review by Stephen Uitti


A couple of years ago, I was at a convention. After the main talk, the speaker was selling books, including one on the topic of his speech. By the time I got there, he had sold out. But something caught my eye, and I picked up one of his other books. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that cuts through the myths around coherent writing styles.

 

It talks about American English Grammar with sanity and humour. The book is Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. I thought it was an arrogant title before I read it, but it’s great. He has a few examples of excellent writing done by great writers. Two of them looked familiar. The draft I was writing had a similar style, and I related to what he was saying. I looked at my parallel passages. For several chapters, I’d been building to a monologue, and hinting at what would be in it. The character wanted to say something powerful and needed the best location to say it. I’d been thinking about it for months. This book gave me the tools to get down what I wanted to say, clearly, and without being clouded by white noise.

I couldn’t even edit my work in case I screwed it up. Pinker’s book helps me set goals and parameters. I can’t lose my work. I use version control. In school, nearly everything I learned about grammar was wrong. English is descriptive, not prescriptive. If a good writer is writing well and breaks a grammar rule, it was never a rule of grammar. English isn’t Latin. To boldly split an infinitive is okay.

This book isn’t a quick read. It’s homework. I’d read a passage and then figure out how it related to my writing. I’d check my manuscript to see if I’d made that mistake.

Maybe I should wait until the final draft, but I find it helpful to use as I work. I’m not a big fan of MS Word’s grammar suggestions. I argue with the spell-checker, and mostly win. This is a good book to have at the side of your writing desk.