The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

The goal of writing is to communicate. It’s as simple as that. If you can understand what I’m saying, that should be what matters. Of course, if I say it elegantly, that is a bonus as it makes reading a bit more enjoyable. But, if so-called rules get in the way of elegant prose, we should simply abandon them.

That is the essential message of The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. This is a style guide for today. Pinker is a famous cognitive psychologist and linguist and he comes at style from that perspective. Do the rules that we learn in grammar school make any sense? Where did they come from? Do they really help make an English sentence or paragraph more intelligible? In many cases, Pinker concludes, the answer is no. Many rules were arbitrary edicts by almost random “authorities” who had no real reason to establish those rules. For example, the idea that you can split a verb with an adverb, the so called split infinitive, comes from the idea that English has to obey the same rules as Latin, an unrelated language.

I admit, The Sense of Style aligns well with my own perspective on writing. To me, the most important thing is the logic of the prose, not the faithfulness to these rules. I do want my writing to be entertaining and easy to follow, but I don’t want to be beholden to rules that make that task more difficult, not easier. The Sense of Style provides that kind of guidance. It is actually targeted more to people who write more technical or non-fiction works, such as scientists, but the lessons Pinker tries to impart are useful for any writer. In this sense, however, Pinker focuses on “classic writing” as a style to best convey information to the reader. “Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.” How often have we read something and felt like we weren’t smart enough to understand what the writer was trying to say?

Pinker takes aim at so-called language fundamentalist, the people who decry the death or the bastardization of the language, people who treat traditional rules of usage as the Ten Commandments: “as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation.” But, as Pinker points out, many of these rules have no sound logic or reason behind them. He goes after many of the tropes we learn in school — you can’t use an intensifier with certain words (like very unique), you can’t split the infinitive, you can’t have dangling modifiers, and never use the passive voice are just a few examples. But, beyond going after these rules, Pinker gives concrete advice on writing. Maybe the best advice is to be aware of and avoid the “curse of knowledge,” the fact that you, as a writer, have been thinking about your subject for so long, you may not realize what is obvious and what isn’t and fail to convey enough information to the reader to make your points clear and logical. “The ability to set aside something that you know but that someone else does not know is such a pervasive affliction of the human mind that psychologists keep discovering related versions of it and giving it new names.” “The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.” And, finally, “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”

From my perspective, the only weakness of The Sense of Style, and maybe it is more my own weakness, is that there are sections where, to really understand them, one needs a greater grasp of English grammar — the kind of knowledge that ones needs to diagram a sentence — than I possess. So, in some ways, it gets a little technical in the middle. The goal is to show how the logic of sentences are really crafted, and that is critical, but some of the descriptions are a bit too opaque for me. Maybe with more time to go through those sections and digest the content, it would be clearer.

However, these sections are made up for by very practical parts where Pinker goes through common “rules” and even misused words to really explain which rules and exhortations are based on sound thinking and which ones were arbitrarily made. My conclusion is that most fall in the latter category and can be safely ignored when writing, but Pinker is not shy in defending those that truly make writing better and have some grounding in the logic of the language. So, a lot of what Pinker advocates for is not rules of grammar, but rules of logic. He bases his arguments on how the human brain deals with words and concepts and how writing should minimize taxing that brain so that the reader achieves maximum comprehension. He emphasizes that coherence and logic in constructing sentences, paragraphs, and documents is critical to catch and keep the attention of the reader. “In other words, a writer has to have both something to talk about (the topic) and something to say (the point).”

Thus, The Sense of Style is also very practical, with examples of bad sentences and how to fix them. I’m tempted to buy this book for all of my postdocs, as I think the guidance is very good. My only hesitation stems from the bits I mentioned above, about diagraming sentences, but I expect that most foreign language speakers are better at this than native English speakers as it seems they learn this better. I think that a more abbreviated version of The Sense of Style would be an excellent idea, one that makes the points but a little more concisely and can be used as a reference. That said, I know of many scientists that could benefit from the advice contained in this book, myself included.

Let me end with a quote, where Pinker recalls an editorial that appeared in the New York Sun in the 1920s. The editors were responding to an effort to ban phrases like “different than X” in favor of “different from X,” the editors said “The excellent tribe of grammarians, the precisians who strive to be correct and correctors, have as much power to prohibit a single word or phrase as a gray squirrel has to put out Orion with a flicker of its tail.”

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Everyone knows The Princess Bride, the movie. And I expect most people realize that it is based on a book, as implied by Peter Falk’s character reading the story to his grandson. I decided to read the book for myself. I also recently rewatched the movie with my daughter and her grandparents. While the movie is still good — it holds up after so many years — the book is much, much better.

Goldman’s wit and style are so simply excellent. The conceit of the book is that Goldman is abridging his favorite story from his childhood, a story that, much like Falk in the movie, was read to him by his father when he was sick. Goldman claims that the original book was written by S. Morgenstern and that he is simply cutting out the boring parts (he says that he tried to get his own son to read Morgenstern’s version (never actually having read it himself) but his son got stuck on the 60-page genealogy of the kingdom of Florin). In his personal notes — interspersed through the story — Goldman describes his cold psychiatrist wife, his overweight son, their new-found relationship when his son gets married and has his own kid and so on. His observations of his own life are sharp and often cutting: describing his return home after a long business trip (Goldman was also a writer for movies), he says “All I know is, I hate being away but coming home is the worst.”

But, the real gem is the story of Buttercup, Wesley, and the would-be criminals that try to kidnap Buttercup to start a war. The plot is almost identical to the movie (or, rather, the movie’s plot is almost identical to the book), but with extra elaboration that gives the story so much more depth. Sprinkled with Goldman’s witticisms (or, rather Morgenstern’s), the story is simply marvelous. There is constant commentary about the history of Florin and the world more generally. For example, describing one scene during which Buttercup and her family are having stew, he says: “(This was after stew, but so is everything. When the first man first clambered from the slime and made his first home on land, what he had for supper that first night was stew.)” And later: “(This was after taxes. But everything is after taxes. Taxes were here even before stew.)” This kind of commentary is sprinkled everywhere and makes the story that much more interesting.

Of course, Goldman’s characters also display their own wit. Once, when Buttercup’s mother is urging her to rest, she says “Terrible things can happen when you’re overtired. I was overtired the night your father proposed.” When the Sicilian is explaining the plan to kill Buttercup, they have this exchange: “‘I don’t like killing a girl,’ the Spaniard said. ‘God does it all the time; if it doesn’t bother Him, don’t let it worry you.'” Of course, there are the classic lines from the movie: “‘He’ll never catch up!’ the Sicilian cried. ‘Inconceivable!’ ‘You keep using that word!’ the Spaniard snapped. ‘I don’t think it means what you think it does.'”

Goldman also offers his commentary on life more broadly. Once, he has Fezzik’s mother tell him “‘Life is pain,’ his mother said. ‘Anybody that says different is selling something.'” And when he describes his own interaction with a former teacher of his, his teacher tells him “‘Life isn’t fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel like. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.'”

Goldman ends the version of The Princess Bride that I have with the first chapter of the sequel, Buttercup’s Baby. This is an excellent beginning of the next chapter in the story of our heroes. Unfortunately, there is only one chapter and Goldman never wrote any more. It seems that he wanted to write a sequel but never fully thought of a story he wanted to tell. Which is too bad, because the hint in the first chapter of Buttercup’s Baby promised a story of high adventure, deep wit, and great characters.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

With a title like that, how can you go wrong? It’s one of the oddest titles I’ve come across. And the story itself matches that oddness, though it doesn’t quite come to fruition, as I would have liked.

Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is set in an apocalyptic future, where the earth’s environment has degraded to such an extent that people have been forced underground. At the time of the story, this happened quite some time ago, and only “now” are humans coming back up, thanks to engineers and scientists that engineer whole ecosystems to enable humans to survive on the surface. There are a few such enclaves around the world, such as Calgary, where much of the story centers.

The crux of the story is a new opportunity for a small group of scientists to learn about an ancient river system. I won’t say exactly how, but this is where the “lucky peach” comes in.

The world that Robson has created is interesting, but it doesn’t feel fleshed out. More, we get glimpses of what happened to make the world what it is, of how people live in their new reality, and of the exoticness of the world. For example, the main character Minh has robotic octopus-like legs, but her back story is only barely touched on. Most frustrating to me, however, is that the book ends when it just gets going. The whole book feels like a set up for the main event, but the main event fizzles out and doesn’t really deliver.

I have to admit that I might be interested in reading a follow-on story, but not if it had the same pace as this one. The characters are developed, but the setting and the story are not as much. The ending felt like a let down. While I find the world intriguing, it isn’t worth investing so much for so little gain, in my view.

Boltzmann’s Atom by David Lindley

It might be hard to imagine now, but at the end of the 1800s, the scientific community was beginning to think it had more or less wrapped up all-things physics. Newton’s mechanics were well understood and Maxwell had recently shown how light behaved as a wave, giving a unified theory of electricity and magnetism. Little could they all imagine that everything would be turned on its head in just a few short years.

Presaging this transformation of physics was Ludwig Boltzmann, who was one of the leading figures of what we now call statistical mechanics. He showed how we could move beyond treating individual particles and think about them as large groups, think about their average properties. This allowed him to consider the properties of solids and liquids and gases on a scale that more directly connects with every day life. Maybe most importantly, he showed how the properties of these groups, or ensembles, of particles connected to the concept of entropy, which was a fairly vague concept before him. His impact to physics is immeasurable, and is enshrined in various concepts that bear his name, not least amongst them being the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution and the Boltzmann factor.

However, during his life, his ideas were not so quick to catch on and were, in particular, challenged by people like Ernst Mach (yes, the one who devised the Mach scale of speed), who exposed a view that physics should only describe what is directly observed, that there was no room for theorizing what caused those observations. That, combined with Boltzmann’s relative isolation in a small university and his own near-schizophrenia with his status, led to a relatively slow acceptance of his ideas. Boltzmann’s ideas had, at their core, the concept of atoms, a concept that was not at all widely accepted during his time. As late as 1897, leading scientists such as Mach could exclaim “I don’t believe that atoms exist!”

Of course, there were theories of atoms before Boltzmann, dating back to the ancient Greeks. Lindley traces the development of our theories of atomic particles and Boltzmann’s contributions to those theories. Boltzmann’s own theoretical advances made predictions, based on the assumption of atoms, that were later validated and helped conclusively show that atoms do indeed exist (Einstein also played a critical role with his theory of Brownian motion). That Boltzmann’s assumptions were fundamentally correct was not a given, and that they led to predictions that agreed with observation did not prove them to be true. As Lindley notes: “You make an assumption and explore the consequences. This is exactly what scientists continue to do today, and the fact that a certain assumption leads to all kinds of highly successful predictions and explanations does not, strictly speaking, prove that the original assumption is correct.

Lindley’s portrait of Boltzmann is both the story of a man who had some very profound personal issues and the history of a branch of science that presaged the quantum revolution. The story of the advancement of science is fascinating in its own right, as generations of scientists tried to tease out what, at the microscopic scale, was driving the macroscopic observations we make every day. Lindley describes the scientific environment of the time, in which a few big heavyweights dominated the discourse. A single scientist, working in relative isolation, like Boltzmann, could make huge impacts on his field. This isn’t as true today, where we seem to be delving more into details than bigger swaths of truth. Not that there aren’t any new big truths to discover, but rather that the kinds of technological advances that are rewarded demand digging into the details. And, the democratization of science — the shifting of science being a rich-man’s hobby to a true profession pursued by large armies of people — have made it so that it is harder to stand out in the proverbial field.

As for himself, Boltzmann was never happy. He always desired more recognition for his achievements and that typically meant moving to bigger and better positions at other universities. However, the moment he accepted such a position, he was riddled with doubts and often tried to undo the appointment. Particularly in Austria, where appointments were at least brought to the attention of the royals, this led to some level of infamy for the poor man. His vacillations were likely a reflection of some deeper level of depression or other mental condition, as he ultimately took his own life.

Finally, Lindley also provides some metacommentary on the scientific process itself. This is both through the continual argument between people like Mach and Boltzmann (Mach particularly disliked theorizing, stating, for example, that “the object of natural science is the connection of phenomena, but theories are like dry leaves which fall away when they have ceased to be the lungs of the tree of science“) as well as his own observations: “Science demands an element of creativity, and an element of faith. The creativity comes in thinking up hypotheses and theories that no one has ever thought of before. The faith comes in thinking that these hypotheses, when shown to be useful or successful in some way, bear a relation to what is loosely called reality.” Late in his life, Boltzmann, spurred on by the attacks by Mach and his followers, turned toward philosophy, in an attempt to understand the nature of truth. However, he never really became a philosopher, telling a colleague “Shouldn’t the irresistible urge to philosophize be compared to the vomiting caused by migraines, in that something is trying to struggle out even though there’s nothing inside?

Altogether, Boltzmann’s Atom is an excellent portrait of a man and of an era in science. It is a lesson in how science advances, not necessarily through the unstoppable march of progress, but in fits and spurts as different personalities come and go. Boltzmann himself is an intriguing figure that bridges two different eras of science. We tend to forget both that science doesn’t always follow an obvious linear path in the search for understanding and that the people that push it forward are human with very human foibles. Boltzmann’s Atom reminds us of both.

Word by Word by Kory Stamper

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer used to work for Merriam-Webster, writing dictionaries. Word by Word is, in some sense, a memoir of her time there, from the point of view of some of the more interesting and challenging words she encountered. It’s both a description of what it means to be a writer of dictionaries, both now and in the past, as well as a vivid reminder of how language evolves. If there is nothing else to take from Stamper, it’s that language changes, that words come and go, and that there is no “correct” way of writing.

Stamper sprinkles Word by Word with stories of words the confound dictionary writers and the dictionary writers themselves. There are brief historical asides on the first dictionaries and how they changed over the years. Stamper loves English and her love shines through in her relationships with words. She throws out quite a few that caught my eye:

  • snollygoster: an unprincipled or shrewd person
  • Why do we call practical and unflappable people “phlegmatic”? Because we used to believe that they were unexcitable because they had an overabundance of phlegm in them.
  • “GI” (originally “galvanized iron,” if you can believe it, but misconstrued by soldiers and others as “government issue”)
  • “snafu” and “fubar” (“situation normal: all fucked up” and “fucked up beyond all recognition,” brought to you by government bureaucracy)
  • Who thought that “pumpernickel” was a good name for a dark rye bread? Because when you trace the word back to its German origins, you find it means “fart goblin”
  • borborygmus: intestinal rumbling caused by moving gas

A key message Stamper emphasizes multiple times: Dictionaries are not meant to be prescriptive, to tell us how to use English. Rather, dictionaries are there to record how the language is actually used. They don’t tell us what is right or wrong, but rather what is actually done. “We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can.”

As alluded to above, the parts I enjoyed the most are where Stamper rails against the so-called grammar Nazis that tell us how words have to be used. A few examples:

  • “Good” has been used for almost a thousand years as an adverb, even though usage commentators and peevers have condemned this use.
  • The fact is that many of the things that are presented to us as rules are really just the of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as Truth.
  • Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.
  • People rarely think of English as a cumulative thing: they might be aware of new coinages that they don’t like, but they view those as recent incursions into the fixed territory they think of as “English,” which was, is, and shall be evermore.

One interesting bit is when Stamper goes into pronunciation, using the word “nuclear” as an example. I’m a bit sensitive to this one as people who say “nucular” are often ridiculed in my field (of nuclear materials) and I’m always a bit fearful that I say it that way. George Bush got a lot of flak when he pronounced it “nucular,” however Stamper points out that the earliest print records of that spelling come from people in the military, government, and nuclear sciences. She notes that Jimmy Carter pronounced nuclear as “nucular” and goes on to say “Jimmy Carter spent his time in the U.S. Navy working on… nuclear submarines… and actually [was] lowered into a nuclear reactor core that had melted down in order to dismantle it. To my mind, he has earned the right to pronounce ‘nuclear’ however he damned well pleases.

As someone who writes a lot, both for work and pleasure, I found Stamper’s view of the language refreshing. She doesn’t advocate for a right way of doing things, but acknowledges and indeed glories in the fact that English (and all languages, except dead ones) evolve. Every generation seems to think that the language is going to hell, that the kids don’t respect the language of their fathers and mothers. The fact is, neither did they. And that is what makes language so interesting.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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