Friday, July 3, 2015

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st CenturyThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book provides reference material as well as conceptual information about writing and word usage. The author's message to purists is "Language is always changing, get used to it." Language has been going to hell for a very long time: “According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.”

Pinker provides plenty of details about the nuts and bolts of sentence structure and larger "arcs of coherence" that help readers decode the meaning an author intends.

My favorite concept from this book is the "zombie noun" a nickname coined by Helen Sword for an unnecessary nominalization that hides the agent of action. "The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction." That translates in plain English to "Writers who overload their sentences with nouns derived from verbs and adjectives tend to sound pompous and abstract."

Since he is exposed to a great deal of academic writing, he explores how knowing a great deal about a subject can make an author the worst possible person to write about it. “The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”

I also enjoyed his ironic sense of humor. “Unfortunately for cosmic justice, many gifted writers are scoundrels, and many inept ones are the salt of the earth.”

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