Steven Pinker, currently professor of psychology at Harvard, is a psycholinguist and cognitive scientist. His book, subtitled “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century”, is a new variant on the old-style rule books on grammar that used to be commonly cited in English language classes before modern teaching methods decreed that spelling and punctuation were a brake on “creativity” and thus to be ignored. (Interestingly, standards are now creeping back as people have discovered that being able to write clearly and grammatically is an essential part of being literate.)
Professor Pinker is a passionate advocate of what he calls “classic style”: having a clear idea of what you want to communicate to a reader and the ability to do so in a lucid way. Naturally, given his subject matter, it is no surprise that he confesses to loving style manuals and that they are among his “favourite literary genres.” That puts him in quite a small group. Still, it is useful to know what the rules of good writing are, especially in the world of journalism.
Pinker has a missionary zeal to help those “who know how to write and want to write better.” This is a large ambition and it is where I think he comes unstuck. By his own admission, when he asked several proven writers what style manuals had helped them, they all replied in the negative; they had worked out how to write on their own. Good writers have an innate feel for words and how to deploy them to the best effect, but they also learn from reading great classics of prose or poetry. Often this is an unconscious process of linguistic osmosis; generally it requires much practice and labour. But they are all united in never learning how to write from style manuals.
Pinker approaches his subject as a scientist. Throughout this book I sense that scientific rigour is at work: if something as elusive as style, yet which also relies on grammatical structure, can be analysed, dissected and examined, he will do so, using as many diagrams and tables of construction as possible. For a non-scientist, let alone someone unfamiliar with style manuals, these diagrams are very confusing. Indeed, they bring back memories of English language classes in school, in which we had to laboriously describe the different parts of a sentence, such as adverbial phrases and adjectival clauses, for the purpose of learning how they were to be used. (Here I might add that “to laboriously describe” is a split infinitive, something we were always told to avoid; one of the merits of Pinker’s book is that, although rigorous, he is not inflexible: split infinitives are allowed, as is starting sentences with a conjunction – something we were also warned against in the classroom.)
But this still brings us back to the question, can the principles of good style really be taught? Pinker, likening the process to cookery or photography, believes it can. I would respond that you can only learn the basics, which are best learnt practising essay writing in school, i.e.to avoid clichés, mixed metaphors, what he calls “zombie nouns” and so on. After that, you are on your own, aspiring to the power of George Orwell’s prose but perhaps falling short. It’s also true of cookery or photography. Great cooks like Heston Blumenthal or photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson probably break all the rules; indeed, aren’t the rules there to be broken? (Incidentally, I now know from Pinker’s book that using “probably” in this last sentence is called “hedging” and it’s bad.)
To be fair to the author, he says early on in his book that he is going to discuss factual prose, not fiction. This is sensible as great writers of fiction also break all the rules of grammar: think of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” and most of James Joyce. I am also reassured that Pinker has no time for postmodernism, post structuralism or metadiscourse. Any kind of jargon and other types of impenetrable prose are given short shrift – interspersed with some very amusing cartoons to press the point home. I am also just as annoyed as he is by incomprehensible letters about tax or instructions about how to use gadgets. But tax collectors and the writers of instructions booklets are never going to read style manuals to improve their writing skills. I fear Pinker has entered cloud cuckoo land (a cliché) in his firm belief that “By understanding how the various features of grammar are designed to make sharing possible, we can put them to use in writing more clearly, correctly and gracefully.”
To illustrate his argument Pinker includes, in a chapter entitled “Arcs of Coherence”, an analysis of a passage from the late Sir John Keegan’s “A History of Warfare”. Pinker is highly critical of Keegan’s prose, comparing it unfavourably to a passage in “The Remnants of War” by the political scientist John Mueller. I can understand that from a narrow textual perspective Keegan’s writing lacks the consistency and coherence that Pinker demands, while Mueller fulfils it. But Keegan is employing a plastic, creative use of words in a vivid and imaginative way, bringing all his cultural and historical hinterland to bear on the subject; it makes for memorable and exciting reading. Mueller is clear, concise and coherent, but he is using prose differently – and the effect is rather less stimulating.
I can’t help thinking that this book is needlessly dry and laborious. Pinker would have had greater effect if he had included some prose passages from the essays of famous writers to illustrate what good writing is all about. He could have used Orwell for instance. After all, Orwell understood a thing or two about the power of words in their relation to each other. Pinker forgets that literate but ordinary readers – rather than the ominous-sounding “thinking person” of his subtitle – want to be inspired and entertained as well as instructed.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.