Applying Science To Style

Gary Stephen Ross deems Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style as “a manual worthy of a place on a shelf just below Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.” He appreciates Pinker’s book for its “painstaking dissection of the many ways in which language both serves and fails us”:

It’s fascinating to learn the science that underlies the stylistic techniques good writers seem to intuit—for example, a list is most easily grasped if the bulkiest item comes at the end (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ; or The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle; or Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!). “Light-before-heavy is one of the oldest principles in linguistics,” Pinker writes, “having been discovered in the fourth century BCE by the Sanskrit grammarian Pānini.” Why? Because the mind must hold the early items in suspension before incorporating the final one, and it’s easier to retain simple things than more complex elements.

John Preston is less taken with Pinker’s analysis, scoffing, “it becomes increasingly clear that Pinker doesn’t have anything new to say, and that anyone who follows his example is far more likely to end up writing waffle and bilge than War and Peace“:

If you had to boil down Pinker’s advice into two main points, they would be: “Keep it snappy” and “Keep it simple”. Unfortunately, he proves wholly incapable of abiding by his own rules. Rather, he’s a colossal windbag, never using three words when 35 can be rammed into the breach, and frequently writing sentences so tortuous that they seem to be eating themselves. He even manages to define what a coherent text is in a way that made my eyeballs rotate in opposite directions: “A coherent text is one in which the reader always knows which coherence relation holds between one sentence and the next.”

Got that? All right then, try this: “In fact, coherence extends beyond individual sentences and also applies to entire branches in the discourse tree (in other words, to items in an essay outline).” I may be excessively picky here, but I can’t help feeling that the phrase “in other words” doesn’t belong in a sentence about the virtues of coherence.