Stephanie Cage reviews Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style.

The Sense of Style — Book Review

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is not a typical style guide. Pinker explains in the first chapter that he does not intend to replace classic guides such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Rather, his book acts as a commentary both on the changes that have taken place since that classic guide was published early last century, and on some of the unchanging principles of style. (Did you notice the comma preceding the “and” in that last sentence? Pinker provides a complex but enlightening explanation on the controversy surrounding the use of commas).

The book cover from The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker.

I laughed out loud several times while reading The Sense of Style, both at the delightful cartoons which pepper the pages and at Pinker’s dry witty attacks on the logical failings of pedants and linguistic purists. Pinker debunks the myth that the Internet is destroying style. He points out that generations of traditionalists have decried declining standards, usually with very little foundation. Indeed, one of the cartoons features a stuffy Egyptian mocking a fellow scribe for ending his sentence with the hieroglyphic equivalent of a preposition!

Pinker argues for a modern set of guidelines which should reflect changes in popular usage, without abandoning the linguistic frameworks that make for clear communication. For example, he spends considerable time explaining the unchanging “tree principles” that govern sentence construction. These principles justify such apparent pedantry as retaining the distinction between “who” and “whom”. However, Pinker acknowledges that in some contexts (mainly spoken ones), “whom” might come across as stuffy and archaic.

Refreshingly, Pinker is less dogmatic than many style guide authors, and more willing to acknowledge that “correctness” may be less valuable than consideration of one’s audience. The Sense of Style sets out his principles with the assistance of sample texts culled from a wide range of sources. My favourite example of clear prose is an article about the breeding habits of herons.

All in all, The Sense of Style is a readable, informative and entertaining book, of value to any reader with an interest in the use and theory of the English language, although not everyone will have the patience to sit through some of the more didactic sections. In particular, the section on “Telling Right from Wrong” seems to be designed more for reference than reading. I wonder whether, as a result, the book would be more useful in the form of a traditional hardcover to sit on the reference shelf than in the form of a kindle download. However, the choice between soft and hard copy, like so many of the grammatical choices discussed in The Sense of Style, may ultimately be a matter of personal preference.

Disclaimer: this book was received courtesy of Viking / Penguin Publishing for review purposes.

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