Notes on:
Pinker, S. (2014): The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

1 Thoughts

One should not approach this book as a reference styleguide (although you can), but as a reminder that good writings is not about fixating on rigid rules and hypercorrection of grammar. It’s important to understand why some alledgedly “wrong” writings were written as they were.

Pinker’s prose is down-to-earth, witty, humourous, but remains – to my amateurish evaluation – rigorous. The book is laden with short stories and comic stripes, which makes it rather enjoyable. Sometimes, however, he delved too deep into the technicalties of grammar, which, in my opinion, are more suitable for the reference section in the end of the book.

I decided to read this book after watching an amazing talk from the author. Maybe you should watch it too:

2 Excerpts

2.1 The classic style of writing

Pinker praised the classic style of writing. He focused on this style for the first part of the book.

The early bird gets the worm, for example, is plain. The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese is classic.

Classic style overlaps with plain and practical styles. And all three differ from self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern styles, in which “the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naiveté about his own enterprise.”

Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.

Think of your writing as camera lens. Good proses create lively mental images, and the smooth transitions between them.

A reader of this intimidating passage can marvel at Butler’s ability to juggle abstract propositions about still more abstract propositions, with no real-world referent in sight. We have a move from an account of an understanding to a view with a rearticulation of a question, which reminds me of the Hollywood party in Annie Hall where a movie producer is overheard saying, “Right now it’s only a notion, but I think I can get money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea.”

The confident presentation of an idea in classic style should not be confused with an arrogant insistence that it is correct. Elsewhere in his essay, Greene does not hide the fact that many of his fellow physicists think that string theory and the multiverse are extravagant and unproven. He only wants readers to understand them.

And for all its directness, classic style remains a pretense, an imposture, a stance. Even scientists, with their commitment to seeing the world as it is, are a bit postmodern. They recognize that it’s hard to know the truth, that the world doesn’t just reveal itself to us, that we understand the world through our theories and constructs, which are not pictures but abstract propositions, and that our ways of understanding the world must constantly be scrutinized for hidden biases. It’s just that good writers don’t flaunt this anxiety in every passage they write; they artfully conceal it for clarity’s sake.

To make a sentence easy to understand, you should start with what readers already knew, and gently introduce new infomation:

Given always precedes new.

Scientific writings often fall into the trap of apologism.

Even scientists, with their commitment to seeing the world as it is, are a bit postmodern. They recognize that it’s hard to know the truth, that the world doesn’t just reveal itself to us, that we understand the world through our theories and constructs, which are not pictures but abstract propositions, and that our ways of understanding the world must constantly be scrutinized for hidden biases. It’s just that good writers don’t flaunt this anxiety in every passage they write; they artfully conceal it for clarity’s sake.

Writers who are obssessed with structures often try to “signposting”: They warn readers beforehand what they are going to write about.

The problem with thoughtless signposting is that the reader has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to, like complicated directions for a shortcut which take longer to figure out than the time the shortcut would save.

Pinker criticized when writers explain what is happening in their relevant fields.

No offense, but very few people are interested in how professors spend their time.

… which I respectfully disagree. These sentences help researchers quickly grasp the movements in relevant fields. I subconciously look for these sentences whenever I try to explore new literatures.

An advice to practice avoiding weasel word (I actually implemented this myself):

That’s the basis for the common advice (usually misattributed to Mark Twain) to “substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”—though today the substitution would have to be of a word stronger than damn.

And of course, there’s more to the book than what I remembered to quote:

In this chapter I have tried to call your attention to many of the writerly habits that result in soggy prose: metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologizing, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives.

2.2 The curse of knowledge

Sometimes we failed to connect to readers. This chapter discuss the main reason: the curse of knowledge.

In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

A considerate writer will also cultivate the habit of adding a few words of explanation to common technical terms, as in “Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant,” rather than the bare “Arabidopsis” (which I’ve seen in many science articles). It’s not just an act of magnanimity: a writer who explains technical terms can multiply her readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk.

Richard Feynman once wrote, “If you ever hear yourself saying, ‘I think I understand this,’ that means you don’t.”

The curse of knowledge is insidious, because it conceals not only the contents of our thoughts from us but their very form. When we know something well, we don’t realize how abstractly we think about it. And we forget that other people, who have lived their own lives, have not gone through our idiosyncratic histories of abstractification.

Why do writers invent such confusing terminology? I believe the answer lies in another way in which expertise can make our thoughts more idiosyncratic and thus harder to share: as we become familiar with something, we think about it more in terms of the use we put it to and less in terms of what it looks like and what it is made of. This transition, another staple of the cognitive psychology curriculum, is called functional fixity (sometimes functional fixedness). In the textbook experiment, people are given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks, and are asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax won’t drip onto the floor. The solution is to dump the thumbtacks out of the box, tack the box to the wall, and stick the candle onto the box. Most people never figure this out because they think of the box as a container for the tacks rather than a physical object in its own right, with handy features like a flat surface and perpendicular sides. The blind spot is called functional fixity because people get fixated on an object’s function and forget its physical makeup. The toddler who ignores the birthday present and plays with the wrapping paper reminds us of how we lose our appreciation of objects as objects and think of them as means to an end.

2.3 On coherent writing

Your bad writings doesn’t necessarily reflect your stupidity:

Though the claim that good prose leads to good thinking is not always true (brilliant thinkers can be clumsy writers, and slick writers can be glib thinkers), it may be true when it comes to the mastery of coherence.

Coherence depends on more than mechanical decisions such as keeping the topic in subject position and choosing appropriate connectives. It depends as well on impressions that build up in a reader over the course of reading many paragraphs and that depend on the author’s grasp of the text as a whole.

Avoid negations:

Every negation requires mental homework, and when a sentence contains many of them the reader can be overwhelmed.

Every negation requires mental homework, and when a sentence contains many of them the reader can be overwhelmed. Even worse, a sentence can have more negations than you think it does. Not all negation words begin with n; many have the concept of negation tucked inside them, such as few, little, least, seldom, though, rarely, instead, doubt, deny, refute, avoid, and ignore.

So when to put “not” in a sentence?

The answer is that negation is easy to understand when the proposition being negated is plausible or tempting.

Writing is often clearer and more elegant when a writer pushes an only or a not next to the thing that it quantifies. In 1962 John F. Kennedy declared, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard.”

There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version of one’s notes. A coherent text is a designed object: an ordered tree of sections within sections, crisscrossed by arcs that track topics, points, actors, and themes, and held together by connectors that tie one proposition to the next. Like other designed objects, it comes about not by accident but by drafting a blueprint, attending to details, and maintaining a sense of harmony and balance.

2.4 Odds and ends in grammar

Conclusion about the controversal split infinitives:

So split if you need to (as I did in the first line on the preceding page); the experts have your back.

Understand the disctinction between grammatical categories and grammatical functions:

Recall from chapter 4 that grammatical categories like adjective are not the same thing as grammatical functions like modifier and complement. People who confuse the two may think that the adjectives in these sentences “modify the verb” and hence ought to be replaced by adverbs. The result is a hypercorrection like I feel terribly (which really should be I feel terrible). The related expression I feel badly may have started out in previous generations as a hypercorrected version of I feel bad. Badly has now become an adjective in its own right, meaning “sorrowful” or “regretful.”

About can vs. may:

A colleague of mine recalls that whenever she said, “Daddy, can I ask you a question?” the response was “You just did, but you may ask me another.”

About dangling modifiers:

Danglers are extremely common, not just in deadline-pressured journalism but in the works of distinguished authors. Considering how often these forms turn up in edited prose and how readily they are accepted even by careful readers, two conclusions are possible: either dangling modifiers are a particularly insidious grammatical error for which writers must develop sensitive radar, or they are not grammatical errors at all. (Did you notice the dangler in the sentence before last?) The second conclusion is the right one: some dangling modifiers should be avoided, but they are not grammatical errors. The problem with dangling modifiers is that their subjects are inherently ambiguous and sometimes a sentence will inadvertently attract a reader to the wrong choice.

Understand how past-tense verbs are used in conditionals:

In English, a past-tense form is typically used to refer to past time, but it can also be used with a second meaning, factual remoteness. That’s the meaning it’s expressing in the if-clause. Consider the sentence If you left tomorrow, you’d save a lot of money. The verb left couldn’t possibly refer to an event in the past: the sentence says “tomorrow.” But the past-tense form is fine, because it refers to a hypothetical (factually remote) event.

But one verb has a special form to express remoteness: be, which distinguishes If I was from If I were.

Interesting infomation:

Probably a fifth of English verbs started out life as nouns or adjectives, and you can find them in pretty much any paragraph of English prose. A glance at the most emailed stories in today’s New York Times turns up arriviste verbs such as biopsy, channel, freebase, gear, headline, home, level, mask, moonlight, outfit, panic, post, ramp, scapegoat, screen, sequence, showroom, sight, skyrocket, stack up, and tan, together with verbs derived from nouns or adjectives by affixation such as cannibalize, dramatize, ensnarl, envision, finalize, generalize, jeopardize, maximize, and upend.

The philosopher James Flynn, who discovered that iq scores rose by three points a decade throughout the twentieth century, attributes part of the rise to the trickling down of technical ideas from academia and technology into the everyday thinking of laypeople. The transfer was expedited by the dissemination of shorthand terms for abstract concepts such as causation, circular argument, control group, cost-benefit analysis, correlation, empirical, false positive, percentage, placebo, post hoc, proportional, statistical, tradeoff, and variability.

who vs. whom:

Though whom is pompous in short questions and relative clauses, it is a natural choice in certain other circumstances, even in informal speech and writing. We still use whom in double questions like Who’s dating whom?, in fixed expressions like To whom it may concern and With whom do you wish to speak?, and in sentences in which a writer has decided not to strand a preposition at the end of a clause but to pied-pipe it to the front.

Talking about whether “unique” is quantifiable:

Here is the flaw in the purists’ logic. Uniqueness is not like pregnancy and marriage; it must be defined relative to some scale of measurement. I am told that all snowflakes are unique, and so they may be under a microscope, but frankly, they all look the same to me. Conversely, each of the proverbial two peas in a pod is unique if you squint hard enough through a magnifying glass. Does this mean that nothing is unique, or does it mean that everything is unique? The answer is neither: the concept “unique” is meaningful only after you specify which qualities are of interest to you and which degree of resolution or grain size you’re applying.

Fun little story:

I can’t resist the temptation to sum up this review with a short story by the writer Lawrence Bush (reproduced with his kind permission), which alludes to many of the points of usage we have examined (see how many you can spot) while speaking to the claim that the traditional rules reduce misunderstanding:

I had only just arrived at the club when I bumped into Roger. After we had exchanged a few pleasantries, he lowered his voice and asked,

“What do you think of Martha and I as a potential twosome?”

“That,” I replied, “would be a mistake. Martha and me is more like it.”

“You’re interested in Martha?”

“I’m interested in clear communication.”

“Fair enough,” he agreed. “May the best man win.” Then he sighed. “Here I thought we had a clear path to becoming a very unique couple.”

“You couldn’t be a very unique couple, Roger.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Martha couldn’t be a little pregnant, could she?”

“Say what? You think that Martha and me …”

“Martha and I.”

“Oh.” Roger blushed and set down his drink. “Gee, I didn’t know.”

“Of course you didn’t,” I assured him. “Most people don’t.”

“I feel very badly about this.”

“You shouldn’t say that: I feel bad …”

“Please, don’t,” Roger said. “If anyone’s at fault here, it’s me.”

If you are not sure about something, look it up:

A writer who is unsure of the consensus for a word is well advised to look it up rather than embarrass himself and annoy his readers with a malaprop. (The word malaprop, short for malapropism, comes from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, who misused words to comic effect, such as reprehend for apprehend and epitaph for epithet.)

About the Oxford comma:

I say that unless a house style forbids it, you should use the serial comma. And if you’re enumerating lists of lists, then you can eliminate all ambiguity by availing yourself of one of the few punctuation tricks in English that explicitly signal tree structure, the use of a semicolon to demarcate lists of phrases containing commas: My favorite performers of the 1970s are Simon and Garfunkel; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; and Seals and Crofts.

These acts of civil disobedience were necessary to make it clear where the punctuation marks went in the examples I was citing. You should do the same if you ever need to discuss quotations or punctuation, if you write for Wikipedia or another tech-friendly platform, or if you have a temperament that is both logical and rebellious. The movement may someday change typographical practice in the same way that the feminist movement in the 1970s replaced Miss and Mrs. with Ms. But until that day comes, if you write for an edited American publication, be prepared to live with the illogic of putting a period or comma inside quotation marks.

This post is in the collection of my public reading notes.