Thinking style with Steven Pinker

There are many important lessons to be gleaned from Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style, and I don’t just mean pointers on usage conventions and grammatical quirks. His book is not only an invaluable resource, it’s also a jolly good read. But you don’t need to read between the lines to get the idea that Pinker has had problems with his editors in the past. Would you be brave enough to take him on? Not sure I would, but I’d definitely recommend that all copy-editors and proofreaders invest in a copy of The Sense of Style and read it all (rather than just sticking it on the shelf in case of editorial emergencies). Here’s why.

I could have titled this blog post ‘The bravery of the long-distance copy-editor’ because Steven Pinker doesn’t seem to like copy-editors, even though he gives a generous credit to the person who has edited six of his works, Katya Rice. If there were prizes for editorial bravery, Katya should be Victrix ludorum.

From the very opening of his book, The Sense of Style, Pinker has a dig at copy-editors, and he barely lets up until the acknowledgements on page 305 where Katya gets a well-deserved ‘thanks’.

For instance:

A skilled writer should … push back against copy-editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.

Newspaper columns are filled with apologies for ‘errors’ like these, spotted by ombudsmen or managing editors who have trained themselves to flag them.

… an editor mindlessly followed the common advice to …

And I could go on. But that doesn’t stop me from putting this book at the top of my highly-recommended-for-editors list. Why?

The good

First, who wouldn’t love the clever double, nay triple, meaning of the main title, The Sense of Style?

The book is ostensibly aimed at writers rather than editors, and at academic writers – mainly in the sciences – in particular. These are people who are not necessarily known for putting ‘style’ high on their list of priorities; indeed they might argue that substance is much more important than style. (And some may use this as an excuse for a range of behaviours, from elbow-patched wardrobe malfunctions and boffin-hair, to the journal article so impenetrable even the author’s closest colleagues think it must be clever because they can’t understand a word of it!)

Then there is the ‘sense’: the see-saw of appealing to our visual/aural capacities for beauty, while balancing the weighty logic of being ‘sense-ible’.

Add to this, for copy-editors and proofreaders around the world, the occupational obsession with house/project style sheets and the sense (and sensibility) of applying the ‘rules’ that give us a firm grounding in our decision-making processes.

Second, there’s the subtitle ‘The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century’.

What a fantastic marketing ploy: who among us wouldn’t want to be regarded as a thinking person? (Ah yes, that’s me; I’ll put that into my shopping basket straight away.) But there is more to the thinking in ‘Thinking’ than you might at first think …

Third, there’s the accessible structure and the authoritative yet entertaining writing by Pinker, underpinned throughout by references to scholarly sources and Pinker’s own research and expertise in the field of linguistics and cognition.

The bad

I haven’t yet found anything bad about this book; quite the opposite. One of the great things about it is the way Pinker has collected numerous examples of bad writing and carefully unpicked them, all the better for writers and editors to understand what has gone wrong and why. The first five chapters of the book are devoted to this kind of deep scientific analysis and explanation – setting out the basic principles of what, in Pinker’s opinion (and who would dare argue?), constitutes good ‘classical style’ writing illustrated with pithy and witty examples.

‘Comprehension checks were used as exclusion criteria,’ should be written ‘We excluded people who failed to understand the instructions,’ explains Pinker, in a list designed to show examples of verbal coffins and zombie nouns, before taking a well-aimed swipe at US Secretary of State John Kerry for saying ‘The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our efforts in order to find a way to facilitate …’ (i.e. the president needs some help). I dread to think what would happen if Pinker ever bumped into John Prescott, our home-grown political sentence-mangler!

So far, so theoretical. But the second half of the book – just one long chapter – is where the juicy stuff can be found. Chapter 6, titled ‘Telling Right from Wrong’, sees Pinker picking off, one by one, the shibboleths of the pedants’ world. From less vs fewer to split infinitives and all points in between, Pinker points out the absurdity of hidebound rule-wielding and the nonsensical obfuscation that can ensue. The chapter is well structured, so it’s easy to look up your pet peeve and watch it being brushed aside in a puff of logic.

And the essential

My copy is already covered in pencilled marginalia and green sticky-notes, and I am sure that I will continue to benefit from the £20 I spent on my hardback version.

As well as all of the above, I’ve learnt more about: writing for the reader; analysing text using grammar ‘tree’ diagrams (the Reed-Kellogg system); applying findings from cognitive psychology to paragraph and sentence formation; why conventions are essential but rules are not … And there is a very useful glossary for quick reference.

But there is one minor grumble I would make to Prof. Pinker, if I were lucky enough to meet him (and feeling very brave):

  • please don’t always blame the copy-editor (or proofreader).

Admittedly, there are some among us who delight in identifying and correcting ‘errors’. There are even those with many years’ experience who persist in their inclination to drive in neutral, riding over the text applying the ‘rules’ as they go without remembering to put their brain in gear. But there are many more of us who do shift into fifth – interrogating the text and poking around to uncover the author’s intent, or checking nuances and probing our editorial colleagues for confirmation of appropriate usage. The problem is that not all clients are willing or able to pay for the extra time this takes. Worse, some clients align themselves with the neutral-drivers, perhaps lacking the clout within their organisations to be brave and let current conventions overrule Victorian (grammar) values, for fear of being blamed for an ‘error’ once the material is sent out into the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why some clients have to work like that (and I will comply if necessary). But here’s the thing that Pinker may be overlooking: editors and proofreaders (especially freelance ones) generally have to please three masters – the author, the client and the reader. It’s a balancing act that we can’t always win. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

And so the main lesson I take from The Sense of Style is not a particular point of grammar or textual analysis technique, it is that editors and proofreaders need to be brave and not blindly apply ‘the rules’. In short, we need to think.

THINK before we edit, think while we edit, and think after we’ve edited. Those are my ‘rules’:

  • Think before: take time to plan what you intend to do, don’t just dive in with red pens (or tracked changes) blazing.
  • Think while: don’t just blindly apply rules (which may not even exist) or edit to show your managers that you know how to edit – think about the readers’ needs and the author’s voice, and ask questions.
  • Think after: don’t just edit and send off your task to the next stage; review and reflect on the work you have done – what have you learnt (about the subject, about the author, about the editing process); what could have been done differently; what impact has your work had and where might that take you next?

Finally, and most important of all, we should all remember:

‘… when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum.’