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The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century Hardcover – September 30, 2014
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Praise for The Sense of Style
“[The Sense of Style] is more contemporary and comprehensive than “The Elements of Style,” illustrated with comic strips and cartoons and lots of examples of comically bad writing. [Pinker’s] voice is calm, reasonable, benign, and you can easily see why he’s one of Harvard’s most popular lecturers.”
—The New York Times
“Pinker's linguistical learning…is considerable. His knowledge of grammar is extensive and runs deep. He also takes a scarcely hidden delight in exploding tradition. He describes his own temperament as "both logical and rebellious." Few things give him more pleasure than popping the buttons off what he takes to be stuffed shirts.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“[W]hile The Sense of Style is very much a practical guide to clear and compelling writing, it’s also far more…. In the end, Pinker’s formula for good writing is pretty basic: write clearly, try to follow the rules most of the time—but only the when they make sense. It’s neither rocket science nor brain surgery. But the wit and insight and clarity he brings to that simple formula is what makes this book such a gem.”
“Erudite and witty… With its wealth of helpful information and its accessible approach, The Sense of Style is a worthy addition to even the most overburdened shelf of style manuals.”
“Forget Strunk and White’s rules—cognitive science is a surer basis for clear and cogent writing, according to this iconoclastic guide from bestselling Harvard psycholinguist Pinker... Every writer can profit from—and every writer can enjoy—Pinker’s analysis of the ways in which skillfully chosen words engage the mind.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Yet another how-to book on writing? Indeed, but this is one of the best to come along in many years, a model of intelligent signposting and syntactical comportment…Pinker's vade mecum is a worthy addition to any writer’s library.”
“In this witty and practical book on the art of writing, Pinker applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the crafting of clear, elegant prose: #requiredreading.”
—Publishers Weekly, PW pick Fall 2014 Announcements
“Who better than a best-selling linguist and cognitive scientist to craft a style guide showing us how to use language more effectively?”
“[A] dense, fascinating analysis of the many ways communication can be stymied by word choice, placement, stress, and the like. [Pinker’s] explanations run rich and deep, complemented by lists, cartoons, charts on diagramming sentences, and more.”
“This book is a graceful and clear smackdown to the notion that English is going to the proverbial dogs. Pinker has written the Strunk & White for a new century while continuing to discourage baseless notions such as that the old slogan should have been ‘Winston tastes good AS a cigarette should.’”
—John McWhorter, author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and The Power of Babel
“Great stuff! Only Steven Pinker could have written this marvelous book, and thank heaven he has. ‘Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived,’ he writes, and The Sense of Style will flip the way you think about good writing. Pinker’s curiosity and delight illuminate every page, and when he says style can make the world a better place, we believe him.”
—Patricia T. O’Conner, author of Woe Is I and, with Stewart Kellerman, Origins of the Specious
Praise for The Better Angels of Our Nature
"A supremely important book...a masterly achievement."
—The New York Times Book Review
—The Wall Street Journal
"One of the most important books I've read--not just this year, but ever."
Praise for The Stuff of Thought
"Packed with information...Clear, witty, attractively written."
—The New York Review of Books
"A display of fiercely intricate intelligence."
—The Times (London)
"Engaging and provocative . . . It's good to have a mind as lively and limpid as his bringing the ideas of cognitive science to the public."
—Douglas Hofstadter, Los Angeles Times
"Curious, inventive, fearless, naughty."
—The New York Times
Praise for The Blank Slate
"Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read . . . also highly persuasive."
"Ought to be read by anybody who . . . thinks they already know where they stand on the science wars. . . . It could change their minds."
"Pinker is a star, and the world of science is lucky to have him." —Richard Dawkins
About the Author
Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers.
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Top Customer Reviews
The Sense of Style is a scholarly and witty book on the art of writing well. Bestselling author, linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker provides readers with a new writing-guide for the twenty-first century. He breaks down grammar rules and challenges purists on the best use of language. This challenging 368-page book includes the following six chapters: 1. Good Writing, 2. A Window onto the World, 3. The Curse of Knowledge, 4. The Web, the Tree, and the String, 5. Arcs of Coherence, and 6. Telling Right from Wrong.
1. Dr. Pinker consistently produces quality work.
2. A "very" unique topic, the art of writing well from a scientific perspective. You don't have to read the book to get my joke.
3. Good use of wit that adds panache to a book about writing style.
4. Good advice throughout the book. "By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don'ts."
5. Explains the three main reasons why style matters.
6. Provides insights on how to become a good writer. "Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose."
7. Supports good style over writing dogma. "The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you're pretending to communicate." "The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity."
8. The characteristics of classic style. "A writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation."
9. Provides many examples of what constitutes poor prose: "Metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologizing, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives."
10. Hanlon's Razor, "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Excellent explanation on how the curse of knowledge may lead to poor prose. "The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose."
11. Ways on how to improve your prose. "Good prose is never written by a committee." Think about that.
12. The importance of understanding syntax. "Finally, an awareness of syntax can help you avoid ambiguous, confusing, and convoluted sentences. All of this awareness depends on a basic grasp of what grammatical categories are, how they differ from functions and meanings, and how they fit into trees."
13. Interesting insights on how our minds work and how that knowledge benefits good writing. "English syntax demands subject before object. Human memory demands light before heavy. Human comprehension demands topic before comment and given before new."
14. How to construct coherent passages longer than a sentence. "In fact, it's the hunger for coherence that drives the entire process of understanding language."
15. Discusses principles of composition. "An important principle in composition is that the amount of verbiage one devotes to a point should not be too far out of line with how central it is to the argument. "
16. Discusses good use of grammar, word choice, and punctuation. Starts off by debunking the myth that all traditional rules must be followed for dogma's sake. "That's right: when it comes to correct English, there's no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum. The editors of a dictionary read a lot, keeping their eyes open for new words and senses that are used by many writers in many contexts, and the editors add or change the definitions accordingly. Purists are often offended when they learn that this is how dictionaries are written."
17. Presents a list of common usage issues. "These are the ones that repeatedly turn up in style guides, pet-peeve lists, newspaper language columns, irate letters to the editor, and inventories of common errors in student papers." Great stuff.
18. Includes notes, glossary and a formal bibliography.
1. This book is intended for writers, not for laypersons. You must possess good command of the English language and grammar in order for this book to make sense. The grammar jargon will overwhelm the average reader.
2. The book's formatting leads to confusion. For a book predicated on clarity, many times I was lost.
3. The writing may come across as pretentious.
4. I wanted more neuroscience.
In summary, there is a direct correlation between the number of stars this book deserves and your expertise on the subject. English majors and writers will give this book either four or five stars. On the other hand, laypersons will struggle with it to say the least. I'm giving this book four stars because even though my engineering brethren balks at reading such a book the avid reader in me recognizes its value. Writers will enjoy this book while the rest will struggle with it.
Further recommendations: "The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition" by William Strunk Junior, "On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction" by William Zinsser, "A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)" by Kate L. Turabian, "The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment" by Susan Thurman and Larry Shea, "Book Writing Mistakes (How To Avoid The Top 12 Mistakes New Business Book Authors Make)" by Jim Edwards, "How to Write Great Blog Posts that Engage Readers (Better Blog Booklets Book 1)" by Steve Scott, "English Grammar For Dummies" by Geraldine Woods, and "Grammar Girl's Punctuation 911: Your Guide to Writing it Right (Quick & Dirty Tips)" by Mignon Fogarty.
A psycholinguist by profession, Pinker is a scholar of the science of language. So it's no surprise that The Sense of Style feels like a modern alternative to the classic but tired guides of Strunk and White and others. In my days as an English undergrad, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style was the biblical tome of writing. But Pinker arrives with this iconoclastic book to show us that sometimes rules can be tone-deaf to what really makes for transparent and compelling prose.
Purists often forget that the English language is rife with idiosyncrasies that can't be fit so neatly into rule boxes. You'll see the best kind of rule-breaking among poets and novelists, who often have the better "ear" and feel for language than your clumsy grammarian. Language is chiefly a medium for expression, not just an embodiment of rules. Literature's most gifted writers have often 'broken' the rules using constructions that might have been edited into sterility by heavy-handed editors. The expressive possibilities of language often rely on the rules being bent.
As you can see, this book isn't your typical manual on grammar and usage. You won't find a list of dos and don'ts in an effort to indoctrinate. Pinker shows us instead that unthinking adherence to manuals actually makes for bad, clunky writing. For example, one of the signature rules in writing is to avoid using the passive voice at all costs. But Pinker argues that if you change every passive sentence into an active one, you're not necessarily improving the prose. The main problem is that the passive construction exists for a purpose--but most people don't know when to use it effectively. Sure, both active and passive constructions convey the same information but they have cognitive differences because of the order of information given. Pinker's rule of thumb: Passive is the preferred construction when the affected entity (the item that receives the action) is the topic of the preceding discussion or when the agent of action is irrelevant to the discussion. In other words, good writing is about having a "sense," about letting your communication goals dictate the writing.
This book isn't for beginners. Pinker is clear in the Introduction about this and writes that this book is for experienced writers. You will benefit the most from this book if you are a relatively experienced writer and reader, and are familiar with the basic rules of language and grammar. You have to know the rules in order to bend them with style and with compelling reason, to know when to take advantage of loopholes and irregularities.
The "sense" in The Sense of Style is knowing how a masterful writer moves fluidly between logical rules and combinations, and knows those idiomatic usages and irregularities. The book is packed with examples and is wonderfully readable, which surprised me. Pinker is great at reverse engineering passages and illuminating what writers have done well (or not done well) to convey their ideas. Take lots of notes!
For those who still crave the utility of a reference manual, the later chapters in the book include lists of words and rules that can be bent and those that can't (in Pinker's opinion). Or, for a bite-size taste of the grammar rules Pinker explores in this book, check out this article (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/15/steven-pinker-10-grammar-rules-break) by Pinker in The Guardian.
Overall, a great, informative read. I'll be keeping this on my reference shelf.
[Disclaimer: I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher through the Goodreads First Reads Program in exchange for an honest review.]
Seriously, I needed to get that first paragraph off my chest and I actually think he's written a decent style manual. But I do wish he had spent more time describing what to write, as Stephen King did in "On Writing", and less time on writing about humorous faux pas in grammar, word usage and punctuation. His best advice was given in his last sentence. "And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world".