Move over, Strunk and White

Move over, Strunk and White

I love "The Elements of Style," a.k.a. Strunk and White after its authors. I have a hardback copy, having worn out two paperbacks.

But now I'm enjoying reading the new style guide in town, "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century" by Steven Pinker (Viking Penguin, 2014).

Pinker is chairman (the book jacket reads "chair," but shows his face) of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. As he writes on page 6 of "The Sense of Style,"

"It's not that I have the desire, to say nothing of the ability, to supplant 'The Elements of Style.' Writers can profit by reading more than one style guide, and much of Strunk and White (as it is commonly called) is as timeless as it is charming. But much of it is not. Strunk was born in 1869, and today's writers cannot base their craft exclusively on the advice of a man who developed his sense of style before the invention of the telephone (let alone the Internet), before the advent of modern linguistics and cognitive science, before the wave of informalization that swept the world in the second half of the twentieth century."

In this new style of stylebook, Pinker has set out to call our attention to "writerly habits that result in soggy prose."

I'm reading the fourth of the book's six chapters and feeling inclined to take his advice. The only "soggy prose" I see in "The Sense of Style" is in the examples, which Pinker corrects deftly.

I'll be quoting from the book for a while -- and benefiting from it even longer.

For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.

Get Seriously stylish! Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.


Leave a comment
  • Interesting ... I'd heard about this book and was intrigued. But I have so many writing guides I haven't read.I thought this will just be another one amouldering on the shelf. But now I'm tempted ...

  • In reply to Teme Ring:

    Hi, Teme, and welcome. I don't think this one will spend much time amouldering. (Ahh, that word's fun!) I'll have other posts on things (I nearly made that "thinks," and it would fit) I discover in it.Pinker is a charming writer and a very good, serious (!) guide to language.

  • I see that his website does not give away the goods, but requires that one purchase the book.

    I sure hope that he is not endorsing corporate speak and valley girl speak.

    I also wonder if growing up in Montreal affects his view of syntax.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for following up by looking at Pinker's web site, Jack. You'll see in future posts here that he endorses neither corporate speak nor valley girl speak, but instead endorses what he refers to as "classic style" and other sensible forms of writing.

    As for your other comment, I do not appreciate generalizations according to nationality.

  • Can't "exclusively" depend on the style developed prior to the arrival of the telephone, "modern linguistics" (whatever that is), cognitive science, blah, blah?

    Really? I don't think that anyone is arguing that Strunk and White should be relied on "exclusively." I'm willing to give Pinker a go, as long as he stays out of the logic business. His argument that advancing technology should make Strunk somewhat obsolete is something of a non sequitur is it not?

    But thanks for bringing Pinker to my attention. I look forward to reading him.

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    Throwing out Col. McCormick's legacy, aren't you Dennis? Remember when the Tribune used the word tho? I do.

    I'm sure both Strunk and White and you have answers for whether "internet" should be capitalized, or the proper English spelling of Arabic terms for various terrorist groups.

    So, it is kind of strange that you refer to non sequiturs. BTW, is that the proper plural form?

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    Thanks for checking in, Dennis. I appreciate your concerns. You're right, putting Strunk and White out to pasture just because of advances in technology isn't much of a sequitur. (There's a taste of Pinker's advice on freshening up the language.) Thus my headline was "Move over," not "Go away."

    But as I mentioned, what I quoted is from page 6 of the book. There's more to come, including such chapters as "Good writing" and "The curse of knowledge." It looks like each chapter will be worth a post, and I haven't finished the book yet!

    I'm glad you're looking forward to reading the book, and I hope you'll continue to let me know what you think.

  • Hi Margaret! I look forward to reading your posts (and the comments) related to this Pinker's "The Sense of Style...." Although I own a copy of "The Elements of Style" and it isn't particularly long, I have never read it from cover to cover. Style manuals tend to make me doze; I use them for reference.

  • In reply to folkloric:

    Hi, folkloric! I understand your impulse to doze about style, although your writing doesn't show evidence of it. I think you'll enjoy reading about Pinker in future posts... now off to work on another one!

Leave a comment