lessons in how to write

Henry Hitchings in The Guardian:

Professor-Steven-Pinker-011If you want to start an argument online, make an assertion about English usage. “Apostrophes are on their way out”, or “People who misuse apostrophes deserve to be guillotined”. For extra spice, add a dash of what's commonly considered solecism: “People who fret about apostrophes are, like, literally the worst thing in the world.” This gambit, of course, also works beyond cyberspace. On the page, and in conversation, we frequently observe that one person's idea of linguistic rectitude is another's of insufferable fussiness. Most of us have strong views about how best to use language; where the more intricate details are concerned, those views are often an amalgam of aesthetic taste, ingrained social prejudice, popular myth and a form of reasoning that we insist is logic though it may smell like something else.

In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker cheerfully launches himself on to this terrain. The Harvard psychology professor is a rigorous thinker whose previous books, including The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought, have been distinguished by a flair for making highly technical subjects seem not just accessible but positively jaunty. Now his distaste for the deathly edicts that glut most current volumes on literary style has led him to create what he calls “a writing guide for the 21st century”. The book has two parts: in the first, Pinker identifies the techniques that make prose compelling and the bad habits that can make it soggy, and in the second he focuses on contentious points of usage, of the sort addressed by the American humorist Calvin Trillin's quip: “'Whom' is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.”

More here.

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