The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker


I first heard about THE SENSE OF STYLE when Pinker was a guest on NPR. The author had an engaging manner and he shared lively examples from his book, which I couldn’t wait to read. Alas, if only Pinker wrote the way he talked. If he did, he might have written a good book. Instead, he got bogged down in dense prose, over-explanation, and useless theory. It’s ironic that a guidebook that’s supposed to teach writers how to write clear prose isn’t written more clearly itself.

The premise is a good one. Which rules of the past still apply? Which ones are no longer useful? In what ways is language changing right in front of us? How can we use that information to make ourselves understood? But Pinker didn’t do the premise justice. He isn’t interested in helping students write better. He’s simply interested in complaining that students write badly. He got blinded by his own self-importance, ending up with not a style guide, but a screed.

THE SENSE OF STYLE is written in long paragraphs of academic-speak. However, the ideas are not complex enough to warrant convoluted sentences dripping with graduate-level vocabulary. But of course, it fulfills the twin purposes of jargon: to make the author’s points seem more important and to exclude the riffraff.

Studying linguistics doesn’t make Pinker an expert on style. He disagrees with language purists, but his imagined enemies are a vague “they.” Besides E.B. White, Pinker doesn’t bother to cite the authorities he disagrees with. He seems to be holding up straw men for the pleasure of shooting them down, all while presenting his own personal opinion as the objective authority. His big reveal is that language changes over time and that the rules of 1900 are not the rules of 2000, which isn’t a revelation to anyone except Pinker himself.

What makes a good grammar book is utility. What makes a good instruction manual is clear ideas expressed in a straightforward way. What makes good style is something THE SENSE OF STYLE will never teach you.


rating: 1 star


I recommend Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty or The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers by Bridget McKenna instead of this book.

10 thoughts on “The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

    • I almost didn’t review it at all. I hate writing one-star reviews. But I have to be honest with my readers and tell everything, good and bad.

    • Maybe get it from the library if you simply must have a look…

      But those other two books I recommended are great–very useful. I’d try one of those instead.

  1. Oh. My. I took such delight in reading this review! It is rare to find a contemporary reviewer who has the panache to pull off harsh commentary without stooping to personal attacks. This is a gem of literary criticism. Thank you!


  2. I listen carefully to reviewers: their own style tells me whether I can trust THEIR opinion, as expressed in the review.

    Yours passed the test with the utmost of success.

    Thanks. You’ve saved me the time it would have taken to Look Inside! the book.


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