What is Style?

Ok, you think, with more than ten weeks studying language and style, I have a few answers to that question. And in fact, you then think to yourself, I just read the “Prologue”  of Steven Pinker’s most recent book, The Sense of Style, in which he says that the word style is, after all, no less than “the effective use of words to engage the human mind” (2). Wait, what?

Pinker first says what his book is not: a reference manual or a remedial guide. Rather he envisions his audience, in his words, “people who know how to write and want to write better” (7). That would describe well most college students (and to be sure every student in this class). For you all know how to write. And if indeed you are interested in the second part, writing better, then you will appreciate Pinker’s departure from the prescriptive approach to language that underwrites most style manuals. Here is how he describes the approach that by now you will surely recognize. “Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority,” he writes, “but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn” (3).

In his “Prologue” there is a helpful answer to the question of why we might need another style guide, in his formulation, a style guide for the twentieth century:

Today. . . . We have an understanding of grammatical phenomena which goes well beyond the traditional taxonomies based on crude analogies with Latin. We have a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading: the waxing and waning of memory load as readers comprehend a passage, the incrementing of their knowledge as they come to grasp its meaning, the blind alleys that can lead them astray. We have a body of history and criticism which can distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings. By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts. (7)

For Pinker, style is the effective use of words to engage the mind. He argues that style matters because we all spend too much time trying to make sense of language that is neither engaging nor worth anyone’s valuable time. Style is also a tool for earning trust, too. The example Pinker offers is a technology executive explaining why he rejects applications riddled with errors. “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it’s, then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with” (qtd. in Pinker 9). Ultimately style, finally and not incidentally, gives pleasure to a reader.

On Tuesday we will talk about your initial responses to Pinker and his thinking in the “Prologue” as well as in Chapter 1 “Good Writing: Reverse-Engineering Good Prose as the Key to Developing a Writerly Ear.” As we prepare for your discussion leading in small groups, please come to class with no fewer than three passages for the class to discuss. I would like to step back and see what you can do before adding my own sense of what Pinker might help us to see.