I recently took out a subscription to Writer’s Forum magazine, mainly so I could keep up with my writing group’s successes. As part of the package I received a free copy of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Having run out of things to read I dived in.
I made it to page 19 before I dived out again. And I admit to fully reading perhaps only 10 of the 19. Next I hit Google to see if there were any reviews out there that differed to the ‘superb, articulate, urbane and witty’ ascribed to The Times on the front cover.
First hit was The Telegraph. The Sense of Style: waffle and bilge. This summed up everything I’d pretty much concluded during my brief dip in those turgid waters. (Preston refers to Pinker as ‘a colossal windbag, never using 3 words where 35 can be rammed into the breach’.) I didn’t get to the chapter on ‘The web, the tree and the string’ with its diagrams highly reminiscent of a recent and mentally traumatic linguistics course, but intuitively warm to John Preston’s conclusion that
All this is reminiscent of those exhaustive analyses of why jokes are funny.
Next stop Amazon, and this is where things started to get strange. The reviews were mostly 5 star (45 of them). Hardly any of those had comments. But in the few 1 star reviews there were comments galore, mainly slagging off the 1-star reviewer.
Maybe this is normal. Maybe I should be taking more note of comments on reviews. The point is, I was for the first time ever moved to add my own comment. It was a long piece in defence of the 1-star reviewers. I included pointing out to one commentator (commenter???) whose sole addition to the ‘debate’ was
‘quote’ is a verb, ‘quotation’ is the noun.
‘Quote’ is a perfectly acceptable noun, as any dictionary will confirm. I suggested that particular commenter (I like the word even if it doesn’t actually exist) needs to note Pinker’s early advice on how grammar and use of language is constantly changing and evolving.
So, to anyone who is minded to dip a toe into Pinker’s style ‘guide’, I urge you to take note of the subtitle: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. As Pinker himself admits in The Prologue (I kid you not, there is a prologue), it is written (also) “for readers who seek no help in writing but are interested in letters and literature and curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.” Note that Pinker is a cognitive scientist and public intellectual. It says so in the author blurb.
Undoubtedly the author is knowledgeable, but if you are a writer of fiction wanting to know how to improve your authorial style, I suggest there are much more pragmatic books out there than this. If you are interested in fields related to Pinker’s psycholinguistics, or enjoy dissecting jokes to distil the essence of wit, this might be the book for you.
I would just like to draw your attention to the admission in the first paragraph of the first chapter. When Pinker contacted writers to ask which style manuals they had consulted in their apprenticeships, most said ‘none’. “Writing, they said, just came naturally to them.”