Read: The Sense of Style

Pinker’s The Sense of Style is a unique writing guide in the sense of its foundation in psychology, its acknowledgement of the nonsense of a strict prescriptive–descriptive dichotomy, and its reference and discussion of other well known guides and popular texts on writing. I like that. It unfortunately also contains a chapter with a very common list of good and wrong usage of terms that could be found on any blog on writing as well. I did not like that.

Hence, the first five chapters are easy to recommend. They instruct, explain, and entertain. It was interesting and enlightening to learn that many “rules”, that need to be broken, are based on the misconception that English is Latin. It is not. Latin grammar does not apply to the English language.

There are a couple of other things I noticed and learned.

Pinker’s Sense of Style is political. Pinker takes clear positions. (On, for instance, feminism and the gender neutral singular)

Every sentence requires a writer to grapple with tradeoffs between clarity, concision, tone, cadence, accuracy, and other values. Why should the value of not excluding women be the only one whose weight is set to zero?

Typographical conventions that support the reader, the ease of reading, and hence facilitate the understanding of a text may be at odds with grammatical structure that also clarifies the meaning and facilitates the understanding of a text.

No discussion of the illogic of punctuation would be complete without the infamous case of the ordering of a quotation mark with respect to a comma or period. The rule in American publications (the British are more sensible about this) is that when quoted material appears at the end of a phrase or sentence, the closing quotation mark goes outside the comma or period, “like this,” rather than inside, “like this”. The practice is patently illogical: the quotation marks enclose a part of the phrase or sentence, and the comma or period signals the end of that entire phrase or sentence, so putting the comma or period inside the quotation marks is like Superman’s famous wardrobe malfunction of wearing his underwear outside his pants. But long ago some American printer decided that the page looks prettier without all that unsightly white space above and to the left of a naked period or comma, and we have been living with the consequences ever since.

I would usually prefer the typographers’ approach. Though Pinker (and Pullum) makes a valid point when it comes to the discussion of the structure of a text, its sentences.

The American punctuation rule sticks in the craw of every computer scientist, logician, and linguist, because any ordering of typographical delimiters that fails to reflect the logical nesting of the content makes a shambles of their work. On top of its galling irrationality, the American rule prevents a writer from expressing certain thoughts. In his semi-serious 1984 essay “Punctuation and Human Freedom,” Geoffrey Pullum discusses the commonly misquoted first two lines of Shakespeare’s King Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”68 Many people misremember it as “Now is the winter of our discontent”, full stop. Now suppose one wanted to comment on the error by writing:
Shakespeare’s King Richard III contains the line “Now is the winter of our discontent”.
This is a true sentence. But an American copy editor would change it to:
Shakespeare’s King Richard III contains the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
But this is a false sentence, or at least there’s no way for the writer to make it unambiguously true or false.

Hence, yes, the typographer’s rule needs to be broken if necessary.

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