Bad writing can't be blamed on the Internet, or on 'the kids today'. Good writing has always been hard: a performance requiring pretense, empathy, and a drive for coherence. In The Sense of Style, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker uses the latest scientific insights to bring us a style and usage guide for the 21st century. What do skilful writers know about the link between syntax and ideas? How can we overcome the Curse of Knowledge, the difficulty in imagining what it's like not to know something we do? And can we distinguish the myths and superstitions from rules that enhance clarity and grace? As Pinker shows, everyone can improve their mastery of writing and their appreciation of the art (yes, 'their').
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 (The Language Instinct). Pinker deploys history, logic, and his own deep understanding of language to debunk many prescriptivist grammatical strictures: go ahead and split that infinitive, he declares, start a sentence with a conjunction, and use passive constructions when they improve a sentence's legibility. (He does give vent to a few of his own prescriptivist peeves, such as the use "literally" to mean "figuratively"). More broadly, he explains how the brain processes language into principles of sound writing, recommending a "classic prose style" that concretely directs the reader's gaze at the world, deploring the "curse of knowledge" that leads academics to believe that readers understand their jargon, and mounting a spot-on critique of incoherent argumentation in a passage by military historian John Keegan. Pinker's linguistic theory can be heavy going at times, but his prose is usually a model of clarity, lightly-worn erudition, and keen insight. Every writer can profit from and every reader can enjoy Pinker's analysis of the ways in which skillfully chosen words engage the mind.