7 Writing Style Lessons We Learned From Linguist Steven Pinker

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Steven Pinker's new book is "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century." (jeffrey james pacres/Flickr)
Steven Pinker's new book is "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century." (jeffrey james pacres/Flickr)

As broadcasters, we're taught to write in clear, active declarative sentences. This means we try to avoid saying things like, "Having promised to enact legislation that would exhort by a multitude of means, including criminal penalties, the governor affected the execution of a law to improve written composition for the advancement of comprehension."

Instead, we would say, "Today, the governor made good on his promise, and signed a law that makes bad writing a crime."

Better. Clearer.

But, why is there so much bad writing out there, and how do you learn to write well? In his new book, "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century," Steven Pinker uses some insights from linguistics and neuroscience to answer those questions.

Steven Pinker will explain the science behind good prose at the Brattle Theatre Tuesday at 6 p.m.


Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist and linguist at Harvard. His new book is "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century." His other books include "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language" and "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." He tweets @sapinker.

7 Writing Style Lessons We Learned From Linguist Steven Pinker

1. Remember your reader's basic tolerance for the pace of information:
Steven Pinker:
"One way that translates into practical advice is, if you've got a big, hairy, complicated phrase, move it to the end of the sentence so that the reader doesn't have to hold it in mind while they're figuring out the structure of the sentence. So, you want to say, 'He sent the poison candy that he received in the mail to the police.' That's harder than, 'He sent to the police the poison candy he received in the mail,' for example."

2. Start strong:
"That is, don't start off the way so many students do, like, 'Since the dawn of time, mankind has been interested in the problem of...' And you have no content and you've got word after word after word. Or, 'In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to the problem of...' And all of that's completely dispensable, but it's very tempting to start that way. When [Richard] Dawkins starts off, 'We're going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.' He wallops you with the most unpleasant fact there is, followed by a bit of a paradox. How could it be lucky that we'll die? And that leads you into the explanation that follows."

3. Employ some elements of poetry:
"'Trusted tart tongue to tens of millions,' that's alliteration. It's a poetic device, but a lot of the techniques of poetry can enliven prose, such as alliteration, such as the careful use of meter — that is, of rhythm. Such as parallel structure, having two sentences, when you're comparing something, that have the same grammatical structure so that readers can focus on what differs from one instance to another. There's not a sharp line between poetry and prose, and a lot of the prose that tickles the ear has little bits of poetry in it."

4. Use "classic style":
"A lot of [good prose] just hinges on the right attitude, the right mental model of what you're doing when you're writing because, when you're writing, you're in an artificial situation. Your reader is not there, you have no idea who the reader is, you might be dead when they're reading your prose. They can't butt into the conversation, they can't furrow their brow, what are you doing when you're writing? And every prose style has a particular pretend scenario and the one that leads to clear prose, which they call 'classic style,' is the following: you, the writer, have noticed something in the world. It's objectively out there. Your reader, who is your equal, happens not to have noticed it yet. Your job as the writer is to point out something in the world that the reader can see with her own eyes if only you give her an unobstructed view. And the reader and writer are equals and the style is conversation. So, those are the ingredients of classic style, and a lot of the advice on how to avoid professionalese and bureaucratese and academese can really be boiled down to — remember that scenario. Remember, that's what you're doing as a writer."

5. Don't write too academically, even if your audience is academic:
"It's a lame excuse...we should make it better because the excuse that we have a lot of technical concepts, we need to use short-hand, that is certainly true, but a lot of things that academics say don't make things any clearer or more succinct and they just didn't do the work to make it as clear as they could, so even papers in my field aimed at people like me, I often find, impenetrable. So, the ideas we're writing for our own clubhouse doesn't fly."

6. You can use prepositions at the end of sentences:
"This is a rule of which I'd like to get rid. Again, it's just not a rule. The idea that it's a rule is just a fallacy. Historians trace it to a snarky essay by, I think it was Dryden, trying to imply that Ben Johnson was an inferior poet because he put prepositions at the end of the sentence. That's all it amounts to, there's no reason not to end a sentence with a preposition. 'It's you she's thinking of,' [or] 'it's you of whom she's thinking.' 'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,' would not work nearly as well if it's, 'You of who she was thinking.' Now, you can choose not to end a sentence with a preposition. You can move the preposition into the sentence if you're trying for a formal style. If you're deliberately being poetic or oratorical — fancy schmancy — and a writer has to decide how formal he or she wants to be. And a lot of the experts confuse informal style with incorrect grammar."

7. Don't throw the door open and say 'anything goes' when it comes to writing:
"When [James Joyce] wrote long passages with no punctuation and very loose grammar, he was actually trying to achieve an effect. Namely, peek into someone's consciousness. So, he knew what he was doing. He was flouting those rules for a reason. Ordinarily though, if you're not trying to render the stream of consciousness, if you're doing something more like 'classic style,' mainly, using conversation to direct the reader's gaze, then readers have certain expectations about how the grammar works. They do change over time but, at a given time, you can look up what they are and if you ignore them you will often make your prose more ambiguous, you'll often just confess to your readers, 'I haven't paid attention to the printed page in the past.' You'll often confess, 'I don't think about what my words mean.' So, for example, if you use literally to mean figuratively. If you say, 'I literally exploded.' What you're saying is, 'I don't really care what my words mean,' and your readers are less likely to trust you. So, I think there are reasons to take care in your choice of words. This doesn't mean that every rule you remember from your second grade class is a legitimate rule. Many of them are bogus."


Scientific American: Steven Pinker’s Sense Of Style

  • "Writing guides tend to be pretty unsatisfying. They offer plenty of concrete rules, but why, a reader might ask, should the rules be followed?"

Slate: What Can Linguistics Tell Us About Writing Better? An Interview With Steven Pinker.

  • "For me, it's the perfect intersection of one of my professional interests, which is trying to convey complex phenomena in clear prose, and the area that I study, which is to say language and cognition."

This segment aired on April 21, 2015.


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