Book review: The Sense of Style

We humans have been speaking for a lot longer than we’ve been writing, which is why the former comes to us so much more naturally. When we write, explains Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, the physical and temporal distance between us and our audience means it’s impossible to monitor their body language and adjust how we’re communicating to keep them engaged. That distance also makes it easy for us to lose sight of our audience entirely.

But if we aspire to what literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner called classic style, we can make our writing as effortless to read as holding a conversation. “The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world,” says Pinker. “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.” (pp. 28–29)

Keeping this metaphor in mind can help you steer clear of the hallmarks of stuffy prose: the self-conscious hedging, the tedious signposting, the metadiscourse, as well as nominalizations (Pinker borrows Helen Sword’s term, “zombie nouns”) and excessive use of passive voice. Yet, it also highlights why some of those devices can be useful. The passive, for example, can help steer your reader’s attention toward the receiver of an action, if that’s where you’d like her to look, and a nominalization can be an economical way to refer to a topic you’ve just introduced. As Pinker says:

The advice to bring zombie nouns back to life as verbs and to convert passives into actives is ubiquitous in style guides and plain language laws… But it’s good advice only when a writer or editor understands why it’s being offered. No English construction could have survived in the language for a millennium and a half unless it had continued to serve some purpose, and that includes passives and nominalizations. They may be overused, and often they are badly used, but that does not mean they should not be used at all. (p. 55)

Pinker encourages writers (and editors, by extension) to be discerning and to think critically about communicative effect, which is what sets The Sense of Style apart from other writing guides. It is not just a list of dos and don’ts, although the final chapter, “Telling right from wrong,” does cover which so-called rules you can safely ignore (perhaps grammatical rules that careful writers and speakers regularly break are not rules at all) and which you should probably heed. The motivation for following these rules, though, should not be the self-righteousness of being correct but the desire to be as clear as possible without irritating your readers—some of whom may have been taught to live by the sticklers’ and pedants’ old-school rules. Another of this book’s distinguishing features is that it grounds its advice on evidence, not just an intuitive sense of what reads well—as useful as that intuition may be for strong writers and editors. Pinker offers us psycholinguistic insight into why separating a subject from its predicate makes a sentence harder to read and why negative statements take longer to process than positive ones. It seems the common trait of stylistic infelicities is that they all slow a reader down.

The source of a lot of bad writing, says Pinker, is what he calls the curse of knowledge: forgetting that our readers don’t know exactly what we do. When we fail to give enough background or properly define a term, we risk confusing the reader. Similarly, if, when moving from one sentence to the next, we don’t show how the two are related semantically, we can leave the reader stranded. The strongest writers, says Pinker, are those that have mastered connectives: coordinators and subordinators (what we’ve traditionally called conjunctions), as well as phrases like “in contrast,” and “on the other hand.”

Pinker’s terminology may differ a bit from what many of us learned in school, and for good reason. When we were taught that “Adam’s” in “Adam’s apple” is an adjective, we conflated grammatical category (genitive noun) with grammatical function (determiner). It’s not that “ice” in “ice cream” has magically turned from noun to adjective but that nouns may function as modifiers. To great effect, Pinker uses the “sentence as tree” metaphor, using tree diagrams, ubiquitous in linguistics, to show how a sentence can be parsed. English, he explains, is a right-branching language: we expect new information to be added on as we move from the beginning of a sentence to the end. Too many left branches, as in a noun string, where we have to store a bunch of modifiers before we get to the thing being modified, gobbles up our working memory. We don’t have to create tree diagrams to write effective sentences, but they are another tool in our toolkit that we can reach for to help us untangle unwieldy prose.

Pinker covers an enormous swath of territory in this eminently sensible guide, from diction to syntax to paragraph structure and beyond, and I can’t even begin to do it justice in this short review. Editors will find The Sense of Style illuminating, hilarious, and (for all but the most pedantic sticklers) affirming. Pinker’s guidance resonates with my own approach to editing (although, counter to his advice, I’ll stay away from using “which” in a restrictive sense—for now), and it’s a refreshing change from the prescriptivist writing guides that don’t account for language change or register. I delighted in reading about such topics as how punctuation restores some of the prosody of spoken language—intonation, emphasis, pauses—and how the demise of “whom” and the subjunctive mood has been exaggerated. (The book, incidentally, also has a great index, which extends its life from an effervescent read to what will undoubtedly be a much-consulted reference.)

“Credible guidance on writing must itself be well written,” says Pinker in the prologue, “and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice.” (p. 1) This book is no exception. The prose in The Sense of Style is ambrosia, and I guzzled it greedily.

Book review: Quite Literally

Journalist Wynford Hicks first published Quite Literally: Problem Words and How to Use Them in 2004, but the paperback edition became available only in the last year. Focusing on British English, this book is part usage dictionary, part writing and grammar guide, and part vocabulary builder. Hicks begins by acknowledging the divide between prescriptivists and descriptivists when it comes to usage (or “conservatives” and “radicals” as he calls them) and says, “In their extreme form both these positions are ridiculous and unhelpful. They make the problem of problem words worse.” He adds, “Many of these contentious grammatical points are difficult – perhaps impossible – to resolve. My intention in this book is to provide practical advice, but nobody can claim to have written the last word on any of them.”

Hicks’s alphabetical list includes words that are often misspelled (e.g., “accidentally, not accidently”), words that are often confused (e.g., rack versus wrack), and words that are often misused (e.g. “anticipate is often misused as a pompous variant of expect (we don’t anticipate rain). It is also used by careful writers to mean forestall or act in advance or come before.”). Hicks also covers some points about punctuation—the serial comma, for example, and the correct use of square brackets)—as well as writing style, as in this excerpt:


Fowler used the term ‘elegant variation’ for the habit of calling a spade a tool or a horticultural implement to avoid repeating the word spade. It was a fault, he said, committed by ‘second-rate writers, those intent rather on expanding themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly’. What he called the fatal influence was the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence.

It’s as easy now as it was in Fowler’s day (the 1920s) to find examples of this:

IPC took her [Sly Bailey] on in 1989 and by 1994, aged 31, she was appointed to the board of the publishing company, becoming its youngest ever member. The Spurs fan continued to work her way up through the ranks. (Guardian)

Part of Roseanne’s behaviour can be explained by the comic’s natural competitiveness. (John Lahr)

In this case too why not ‘her’ for ‘the comic’s’?…

This kind of variation (David Beckham… the footballer, Zadie Smith, the novelist, Brad Pitt… the actor) is always irritating and occasionally confusing. (pp. 236–37)

As this example shows, throughout the book Hicks draws from published works to show that even seasoned, professional writers misuse words in ways that can misrepresent information or confuse readers. Hicks’s focus on the audience is one of the reasons I like this book: although he teaches you the correct definitions of autarchy (absolute power) and autarky (self-sufficiency), he adds, “the two are confused and neither is necessary – why not use absolute power and self-sufficiency?” (p. 18) Similarly, after explaining why “beg the question” doesn’t mean “raise the question” or “avoid the question,” he advises, “Use beg the question in its traditional sense only if you are confident your readers will understand you.” (p. 186) Context is everything, Hicks aptly conveys. Words like obloquy (disgrace) and otiose  (superfluous) may have their place in literary works, even though they may sound pretentious and confuse readers in news reporting. (And if I were better at retaining information I read, I would have found Hicks’s book an entertaining way to learn new words.)

Throughout the book, Hicks continually acknowledges that usage changes and language evolves—something many grammar guides fail to do. I also like that Hicks points out important differences between American and British usage:


in American refers to looks and means ugly; homely in British refers to character and means friendly, kindly…Use this word with care to avoid confusion and offence. (p. 104)


in Britain to table a proposal is to put it on the agenda (to bring it to the table) whereas in the US it’s to withdraw it from the agenda indefinitely (to take it away from the table).

Quite Literally is an interesting, engaging, often humorous read, but for the professional editor, that’s where its role should end. Because the book tries to cover so many aspects of writing in its 250 pages—style, usage, grammar, spelling—it does a thorough job of none of them, and it shouldn’t be considered an authoritative reference by any working editor, who’d be well advised to invest in an actual usage dictionary. I’ve also never understood why books such as Hicks’s attempt to cover spelling at all (unless it’s for padding); those problem words are either completely misspelled and would come up in a spell check or are just variants (“realise, not realize”) whose use depends on a publication’s house style more than anything else. Still, I would recommend Quite Literally as an easily digestible glimpse into British English usage. Hicks offers readers a good reminder of the value of clarity and succinctness, and even veteran editors will learn from the book.

And what does Hicks say about “literally”?


features in all style and usage guides. Don’t use it when you don’t mean it, they say. ‘He literally exploded with anger’ is absurd. But do use it if you need to make clear that a stale metaphor is, for once, an accurate statement. ‘He literally died laughing’ could be true…

Others seem to think that by putting ‘almost’ in front of ‘literally’ they can make it work:

The people of the rebuilt Oradour lived, almost literally, within this history. (Adam Nossiter)

But how can something be ‘almost literally’ true? Either it is true or it isn’t…

Because literally is so generally misused, some people feel that they have to add an intensifier like ‘quite’ – to say ‘I really mean it’… In turn ‘quite literally’ becomes the standard phrase… And so for people who want to say ‘I really mean it’, a further intensifier is needed. Both examples come from the Guardian:

Lee Westwood has backed himself to win the Sun City Golf Challenge after an abysmal year by his standards. Quite literally, in fact. The Workshop player put a sizeable wager on himself.

In Sicily one Vittorio Greco has gone to his grave. Quite literally, in fact. Vittorio was checking progress on a family tomb when he slipped, struck and died on the spot.

Quite literally, in fact – or literally, literally, literally. Why not give this word a rest? (pp. 131–33)