Pinker's 'Sense of Style' - A window onto the world

Pinker's 'Sense of Style' - A window onto the world

The second chapter of Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century” (Viking Penguin, 2014) is titled “A window onto the world.”

The chapter, as its subtitle says, describes “Classic style as an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese and other kinds of stuffy prose.”

(For more on Pinker’s prologue and first chapter, see previous posts.)

Pinker points out that “Speaking and writing involve very different kinds of human relationship, and only the one associated with speech comes naturally to us.”

After describing the immediate reactions we get from spoken communication, Pinker writes:

“We enjoy none of this give-and-take when we cast our bread upon the waters by sending a written missive out into the world. The recipients are invisible and inscrutable, and we have to get through to them without knowing much about them or seeing their reactions. At the time that we write, the reader exists only in our imaginations. Writing is above all an act of pretense.”

That’s daunting, Prof. Pinker. But reading on helps:

“The key to good style, far more than observing any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate.”

He gives examples including a college student “pretending he knows more about his subject than the reader” and “an activist composing a manifesto” to engage an audience’s emotions.

Pinker notes that “literary scholars Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner have singled out one model for a simulation while writing for general readers — essays, articles, reviews, editorials, even blog posts.” (Aha!)

Thomas and Turner call this style “classic style,” and Pinker suggests that writers should aspire to it.

“The guiding metaphor of classic style,” writes Pinker, “is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth.”

The reader is competent, Pinker asserts, so the reader does not need to argue. The writer of classic prose needs only present the truth for it to be recognized.

“A writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences,” writes Pinker: “showing the reader something in the world and engaging her in conversation.”

I’ll note here — conversationally — that Pinker avoids constructions such as “he or she” by representing the writer and the reader by one gender or the other, changing their jobs (so to speak) regularly.

Pinker points out that showing, as a metaphor, implies something concrete being there to see. That means classic style is not contemplative or romantic, nor prophetic, “in which the reader has the gift of being able to see things that no one else can, and uses the music of language to unite an audience.”

Pinker doesn’t denigrate those styles. Nor does he disparage “practical style,” the plain language of traditional stylebooks such as Strunk & White. There are  uses for all. As Pinker puts it, in practical style “the writer’s goal is to satisfy the reader’s need.”

Classic style, on the other hand, conveys an interesting truth.

“What classic style does,” says Pinker, “is explain” (abstractions) “as if they were objects and forces that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.”


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  • At least he is denouncing "academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese and other kinds of stuffy prose," which I said earlier I hoped he would.

    But to use one bit of corporate speak, many endeavors are "customer focused." For instance, in legal writing you know that the audience consists of lawyers and judges, and in addition, since most of the discussion is about appellate court cases where either the plaintiff or defendant loses, how not to screw up like the loser did (about the only thing I learned in a legal composition class).

    Rahm's apologia commercial (running the past couple of days) pretty much acknowledges that he didn't understand or listen to his audience, but doesn't care; he's still staying on the same message.

    Maybe fiction is directed to a more diffuse audience (not including me), but even so, Harry Potter is written for children and Fifty Shades of Grey is not.

    Finally, Jose Maria Andres claims that PBS is the Window to the World, but only WTTW claims to be.

  • Well put, Jack. As always, thanks for reading.

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