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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.”

This Explains Everything edited by John Brockman

thisexplainseverythingEdge is a collection of people, leaders in fields from physics to biology and successful business people and musicians. People we’ve all heard of, like Alan Alda, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, along with a lot of other people that aren’t yet household names, but are leaders in their respective fields. The goal of Edge is to simply get people — intellectual leaders of all sorts — and have them talk. Have them ask questions to one another, have them discuss important topics and push the frontiers of what we, collectively, know. As they summarize their purpose:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

As part of this goal to ask and answer questions, each year the Edge contributors propose and vote on a question that they then each try to answer. This has been going on for a few years now and each year the answers are collected into a book, edited each year by John Brockman. The latest book, which is also the first one I read, is called This Explains Everything and collects the answers to the question: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?

The book collects about 150 answers from a large variety of people. Each answer is 1-10 pages and vary from choosing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, to Maxwell’s Equations (what I personally would have chosen if I were part of this), to more modern cutting edge science that, to be honest, is sometimes a bit hard to follow. And it isn’t all science, there are poets and musicians who also contribute their answers.

For me, the best thing about this book isn’t necessarily knowing what Jared Diamond’s favorite explanation is, but rather to get different views on well established science, such as Darwin, as well as become exposed to new ideas that, as a scientist working in a very narrow field, I don’t come across in my daily work. Some of the ideas are simply weird — Aubrey De Grey suggests that it won’t be long until monogamy is a thing of the past, essentially equating sharing sexual partners to sharing chess partners. I’m not sure I buy that one. But, there are a lot of other great ideas which I was very happy to learn about. A couple of my favorites:

  • Scott Atran: “reason itself is primarily aimed at social victory and political persuasion rather than philosophical or scientific truth”
  • Joel Gold: “Aristotle defined man as a rational animal. Contradictions like these [described earlier] show that we are not.”
  • Paul Steinhardt, in describing the discovery of quasi-crystals: “While elegance and simplicity are often useful criteria for judging theories, they can sometimes mislead us into thinking we are right when we are actually infinitely wrong.”
  • Frank Wilczek: “In theoretical physics, we try to summarize the results of a vast number of observations and experiments in terms of a few powerful laws. We strive, in other words, to produce the shortest possible program that outputs the world. In that precise sense, theoretical physics is a quest for simplicity.”
  • Gerd Gigerenzer: “Illusions are a necessary consequence of intelligence. Cognition requires going beyond the information given, to make bets and therefore to risk errors.”
  • Anton Zeilinger: “without occasionally taking a risk, even in the most exact science no real innovation can be introduced.”
  • Andre Linde: “mathematicians and physicists can live only in those universes that are comprehensible and where the laws of mathematics are efficient.”
  • Gino Segre: “I have spent a good part of my career searching for an explanation of the masses of the so-called elementary particles. But perhaps the reason it has eluded us is a proposal that is increasingly gaining credence — namely, that our visible universe is only a random example of an essentially infinite number of universes, all of which contain quarks and leptons with masses taking different values.”
  • Andrian Kreye: “In Europe, the present is perceived as the endpoint of history. In America, the present is perceived as the beginning of the future.”
  • Helena Cronin: “And thus environments, far from being separate from biology, autonomous and independent, are themselves in part fashioned by biology.”
  • John Tooby: “Natural selection is the only known counterweight to the tendency of physical systems to lose rather than grow functional organization — the only natural process that pushes populations of organisms uphill (sometimes) into higher degrees of functional order.” and “Entropy makes things fall, but life ingeniously rigs the game so that when they do, they often fall into place.”
  • Peter Atkins: “We, too, are local abatements of chaos driven into being by the generation of disorder elsewhere.”
  • Elizabeth Dunn, on why we feel pressed for time: “They argue that as time becomes worth more and more money, time is seen as scarcer.”
  • Seth Lloyd: “The true symmetry of space is not rotation by 360 degrees but by 720 degrees.”
  • Tim O’Reilly: “Climate change really is a modern version of Pascal’s wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we’ve built a more robust economy. On the other, the worst outcome really is Hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turn out to be wrong.”
  • Alvy Ray Smith, on Pixar’s development of animation: “Motion blur was the crucial breakthrough. In effect, motion blur shows your brain the path a movement is taking and also its magnitude.”
  • Albert-Laszlo Barabasi: “North America and Western European cuisine show a strong tendency to combine ingredients that share chemicals… East Asian cuisine thrives by avoiding ingredients that share flavor chemicals.”
  • Lawrence Krauss, on the unification of electricity and magnetism and Maxwell’s equations: “It represents to me all that is best about science: It combined surprising empirical discoveries with a convoluted path to a remarkably simple and elegant mathematical framework, which explained far more than was ever bargained for and in the process produced the technology that powers modern civilization.”
  • Robert Kurzban: “The idea is that when people intervene in systems with a lot of moving parts — especially ecologies and economies — the intervention, because of the complex interrelationships among the system’s parts, will have effects beyond those intended, including many that were unforeseen or unforeseeable.”
  • Samuel Barondes: “personality differences are greatly influenced by chance events.”
  • Stanislas Dehaene: “Our brain makes decisions by accumulating the available statistical evidence and committing to a decision whenever the total exceeds a threshold.”
  • Andy Clark: “Language thus behaves a bit like an organism adapting to an environmental niche. We are that niche.”
  • Nicholas Carr: “The shape of existence is the shape of failure.”

(Ok, my list is a little long… but it serves to illustrate some of the very interesting ideas and concepts that were discussed in this book.)

As I mentioned, the best thing about this book was just being exposed to ideas beyond what I encounter in my daily work. Not all of them are things I can personally use in my work, but they show some of the cutting edge work being done in other fields.

I greatly enjoyed the book and have already downloaded my next one from this group, This Will Change Everything.