It’s taken a linguist and psychologist—Steven Pinker—to potentially displace the ubiquitous “The Elements of Style” by Will Strunk and E. B. White, and have us look with fresh eyes at what it takes be a good writer. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Viking, 2014), Pinker offers a refreshing approach to writing that is a far cry from the collection of rules and platitudes typically delivered by self-proclaimed masters of grammar, including Strunk & White and the more contemporary, albeit testy, British grammar stickler Lynne Truss, who, in her Eats, Shoots & Leaves, describes her “zero tolerance approach” by endorsing the “hacking up and burial in unmarked graves” of those who improperly use apostrophes.
Truss’ position epitomizes the attitudes of classical grammarians, who unfortunately have obstructed generations of students from becoming better and more effective writers and have given so many others a phobia about putting pen to paper.
Like so many professions, it’s taken an outsider to spot the weaknesses and stuck-in-the-mud conventions of teaching grammar and composition. The jacket copy aptly distinguishes Pinker’s approach: “Rather than moaning about the decline of the language, carping over pet peeves, or recycling spurious edicts from the rule books of a century ago, [Pinker] applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose”
I’ve dealt with grammar sticklers equally committed to their trade as Ms. Truss, but lest murderously so, but in the end have noticed that as accurate as they are at pontificating on the rules of grammar, they simultaneously suck the life out of the prose they employ to do so. Rules are stated, forced and fabricated examples given, and, after a brief discussion, exercises presented that require a student to prove they understand the rules rather than how to apply them to the betterment of their prose. According to “The New York Times” book reviewer Charles McGrath, Pinker takes “a liberal, much looser and more easygoing” approach than, say, the Times’ own copy editors, which he describes as “purists.”
Pinker doesn’t turn the tables and advocate that we murder purists, but he might consider banishing them. In the meantime, he has socked stuffed-shirted grammarians in the eyes and rightfully so. He sees the problem with grammar for what it is—controlled by grammarians. And the problem with writing is that grammarians have taught it.
But don’t get ready to jump on any bandwagon to go and burn the English department down. Pinker takes us down his own rabbit holes as he discusses and diagrams usage in a way that reminded me of the painful efforts of my own long-ago elementary school days of diagramming subjects and predicates and prepositional phrases as if they were elements of an electrical circuit. Don’t forget, Pinker’s a linguist first and a revolutionary grammarian second. A linguist is a bit like an English major with a microscope, and sometimes Pinker has us peering into the microscope at linguistic minutiae. But it’s a small price to pay for the value his book delivers.
By revising the priorities of knowledge and skills needed to be a good writer, Pinker has arrived at a better approach as to how to teach grammar. In a selfish reaction, Pinker makes me feel vindicated when he states what I preached to my own students about writing in a linear fashion using words that make sentences and paragraphs flow from one to the next, and how much you can learn by reverse-engineering great examples. In fact, his first chapter, titled simply “Good Writing,” is subtitled “Reverse-Engineering Good Prose as the Key to Developing a Writerly Ear.” Rather than draw battle lines between the purists and the others of us, Pinker makes you think about writing in a way that teases jurisdiction over prose away from the clutches of the grammarians to set if free to be studied in situ, as it were, and convert it from less an obstacle to more a tool of writing.
His first chapter is not ponderous but makes you ponder. He introduces writing by exploring four actual and diverse real-world examples. He presents the quoted material and then takes us on a voyage of sentence-by-sentence analysis. Opposite the traditional stating rules and giving examples of their application, he quotes really good writing and discusses what makes it so. He throws you into the deep end of the pool not to be mean but because that is where our written language resides. He explains: “The spoken word is older than our species, and the instinct for language allows children to engage in articulate conversation years before they enter a schoolhouse. But the written word is a recent invention that has left no trace in our genome and must be laboriously acquired throughout childhood and beyond.”
That statement alone is cause for relief. It’s not that you’re stupid—which is the conclusion we allow too many students to take away from their composition classes. You have to learn how to take words and effectively put them into written form. Unfortunately, the way we have chosen to teach that skill really sucks.
Because he uses examples to explore and find the rules of good writing, you can’t simply jot down his list the rules. For example, at the end of the first chapter he lists what you should have learned:
• The “insistence on fresh wording and concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary;
• “An attention to the readers’ vantage point and target of their gaze;
• “The judicious placement of an uncommon word or idiom against a backdrop of simple nouns and verbs;
• “The use of parallel syntax;
• “The occasional planned surprise;
• “The presentation of a telling detail that obviates an explicit pronouncement”; and,
• “The use of meter and sound that resonate with the meaning and mood.”
You need to read and follow his analyses of examples from which the rules are derived to fully understand how best they are applied. Think about this approach in contrast to the traditional one of introducing a rule, giving example(s) of its proper use and application, and then being required to prove you “got it” by completing contrite sets of objectively-gradable exercises. In the end you might have memorized the rules, but likely you have learned little about how to be a better writer.
To become a better writer, you have to write. What Pinker’s book does is give you the freedom to think about writing as less an application of the rules of grammar then an effort at communication.
In chapter two, entitled “A Window onto the World” and subtitled “Classic Style as an Antidote for Academese, Bureaucratese, Corporatese, Legalese, Officialese, and Other Kinds of Stuffy Prose,” he sets out to educate the reader on what makes for good writing. He initially does so by doing what Henry Africa, my “professor” of newspaper production, did for me at Iowa. Prof. Africa would take a column of type from a newspaper article and within a few minutes halve it without losing the clarity of its content. Pinker does it with less practicality—to get the column of lead to fit into the unforgiving space allotted to it—by discussing writing in terms of style, which he describes as “how the writer imagines himself to be related to the reader, and what the writer is trying to accomplish.”
Part of his approach is to classify writing by various styles and explain their differences—such as the “classic style” and the “practical style”—in terms of the differences in their relationship between the writer and the reader. The distinctions between the styles are more substantive than nuanced, and once he has explained them you’re likely to see their importance to writing prose that achieves the clarity for your intended audience. Though this may come across as esoteric here, the distinctions have practical values, which he carefully points out.
Pinker seems to prefer the classical style, which he states “will make anyone a better writer, and . . . is the strongest cure I know for the disease that enfeebles academic, bureaucratic, corporate, legal, and official prose.”
There are still some rules but ones distilled from examples. In the ordinary grammar composition text, the rules are given and supported by examples. Pinker does the opposite. He finds via the analysis of his examples. And, the examples he uses are not contrived but the real prose of accomplished writers. His approach is the difference between reading about music and going to a concert and having the conductor explain what is going on and why. It’s not that the authors’ whose snippets he shares and uses have something important to say. That doesn’t capture what they do. Instead, says Pinker, “They write as if they have something important to show. And that . . . is a key ingredient in style.”
What has Pinker tapped into? Logic. He has applied the techniques of the science lab to teaching writing but has preserved the underlying creativity, if not enhanced it. He takes examples of writing and through analysis and discussion (dissection), shows us what the writer has done and why. If I open my Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition text I had to use to teach my middle school students, I find it akin to the federal tax codes and regulations I lugged around in law school—a ponderous compilation of rules and regulations. The distinction is that the tax laws and rules would keep clients out of jail. The rules of grammar have put too many students into a literary jail . . . without parole. Students learn writing not by emulation but through creation. Of all the subjects we teach our students, writing has been the subject taught wrong and taught wrong for a long time. Pinker might well help undo the damage that has caused.
But the powers of inertia are great. The hardest thing to open is a closed mind. Relying on Pinker, I’ll do a little prying of my own in future blogs. He’s a welcomed voice to the fields of grammar and writing.