The Evolution of the Style Guide: An Interview with Psycholinguist Steven Pinker

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By Steven Pinker (Rebecca Goldstein) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and psychologist whose work focuses on language–how it works and how it breaks down. Drawing upon his nearly forty years of research, as well as his experiences on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, Pinker has developed a new guide to writing good prose called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. The Ploughshares Blog recently met up with Steven Pinker in Chicago to talk about art of writing a style guide, his work in the psychology of language, and how the two combined to create The Sense of Style.

Brett Beasley: In the beginning of your book, you speak of your love of guides like The Elements of Style. What is it about the genre of the style guide that you enjoy, and what made you want to write a style guide of your own?

Steven Pinker: I enjoy their fine observations about language’s structure. Because I am a psychologist who studies language, they stimulate me to think about what features of language make a piece of writing hard to understand. Style manuals themselves are also usually well written—they have to be in order to have any credibility—and I find them enjoyable to read for that reason. I’ve always been interested in improving my own writing, and books like The Elements of Style provided advice that I need in order to transition from academic writing to writing for a wider audience.

But, as a linguist, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with many style guides. I found that much of their content consists of arbitrary dos and don’ts that are not based on a deep understanding of how language works. Much of the advice was stated far too crudely, and I thought a better awareness of the cognitive processes involved in reading would allow me to offer advice that was more finely tuned.

Virtually all of the style books are based on a defective theory of usage. They teach that the rules of language are objectively correct; you can either follow if you respect standards of excellence, or you can flout them if you don’t care about degrading the language. But that’s not what the rules of language are. They emerge as a tacit consensus among a virtual community of writers, which explains why much of the advice in style manuals is patently obsolete. In The Elements of Style, for example, Strunk and White warn readers away from using the verbs “to contact” and “to finalize.” They say that you can’t use “to fix” to mean “repair,” and that you can’t use the verb “to claim” to mean “assert.” I don’t doubt that these forms were unacceptable in Professor Strunk’s time. However, the language has moved on, and those verb forms are unexceptionable now. But manuals like The Elements of Style show no awareness that the consensus about correct and incorrect usage can change. I thought that a style guide ought to treat that feature of language more intelligently.

BB: One key feature of style guides you mentioned is their attempt to exemplify their own advice. One of the most enjoyable aspects of your new book, The Sense of Style, is the way the book takes up this idea of self-exemplification and runs with it—even humorously and playfully at times by committing “errors” and only later drawing the reader’s attention to them. How did the necessity of demonstrating your own advice affect the writing process for you?

SP: On the one hand, it was one of the easier of my books to write because I spent a good portion of it offering my own advice instead of discussing down dozens of studies and analyzing their methods.

But I faced a major challenge in coming up with a consistent way of analyzing grammar. I wanted to use illustrations that would be acceptable to linguists and also understandable for non-linguists. So I was forced to discover the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. It discusses the language in a consistent way and in a way that conforms to the findings of modern linguistics. Then I spent a lot of time making my terminology consistent with that single standard.

BB: Readers of Ploughshares love great writing, but they probably don’t look to cognitive science to tell them how language works best. What can creative writers and lovers of literature learn from a psycholinguist such as yourself?

SP: There are many things. The first is at the lowest level, the mechanics of sentence construction. What goes into the tortuous syntax that makes prose difficult? We all know that it isn’t just length or the number of the words. Great writers, after all, can write long sentences. The problem with difficult prose is its syntactic structure. Understanding that structure helps a writer more go beyond the mere intuition that a sentence is difficult.

At a higher level, there is the problem of what cognitive scientists call “the curse of knowledge.” It is the inability that we all suffer from to imagine what it is like not to know something that we know. It is a basic principle of cognitive science and it underlies a lot of unclear and ambiguous writing.

Finally, cognitive science can help us understand classic style, which is a term I have borrowed from the scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. Classic style offers a window into the writer’s world, and it unifies all of the advice that is given to writers, even creative writers—to show and not tell, for example. Several friends of mine have tried their hand at writing a novel, and in looking at their drafts, I noted that they committed the same sins as many nonfiction writers. The cure is the same—namely, classic style.

But the advice in the book isn’t only from cognitive science. It is also from historical studies and lexicography. I look at where usages come from and I ask, Do good writers obey this rule, or do they flout it? Those parts of the book are at the border of philology and literary studies, and I think that they too will be useful to the readers of Ploughshares.

BB: Although your new book is a guide to writing in the twenty-first century, it doesn’t engage in any hair pulling over the popularity of platforms like Twitter or text messaging, the platforms language purists often blame for the decline of language. In your opinion, is the quality of English prose in decline?

SP: No, I don’t think it is in decline. There’s an enormous amount of great writing out there. The idea that Twitter is destroying language by forcing us to write 140 characters doesn’t make sense. The act of tailoring your writing to one medium doesn’t make you incapable of expressing yourself in another medium. We have always tailored our writing to particular audiences and contexts. We don’t speak the same way when we’re delivering a funeral eulogy as when we ask our partner to pass the butter at the breakfast table. We have always left notes or sent messages one another. Part of being competent at language is knowing what form of language is appropriate for the audience and medium. The fact that we’ve added another medium to our repertoire doesn’t mean that we have become amnesic for every other way to communicate.

BB: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

SP: My pleasure.