I should admit I had expectations going into this book. I had the privilege of hearing the author, Steven Pinker, speak during a tour for this book, and the talk was amazing. It was smart and entertaining, and I was hoping for the same from the book. The book is smart all right, but it’s soooo dense that the entertainment is mostly gone. I like language and grammar, and I’m pretty good with them. I have graduate degrees in both English and Latin. And even with all that background, the sheer technicality and extensiveness and detailed depth of the discussion was hard for me to handle. It took me almost a year and a half of off and on reading this thing to finish it, and by the time I got to the end, I’d totally forgotten the beginning and the middle. On the plus side, when I picked it up to finally finish, I found a high school class photo of a cousin that I thought I’d lost (I must have used it as a handy book mark at an earlier point).
The book is based on the observation that every generation or two has a population of pedants who loudly lament the loss of the finer points of language and style in the younger generations, and that this wail of pending cultural collapse is usually accompanied by an explosion of style and grammar manuals. Pinker proceeds to argues that many of the classic style manuals present either impossible or just plain bad style advice and accompanies his arguments with the most hyperbolic examples he can find (often from manuals, journalists, or corporate and academic professionals).
There are 6 sections, each basically a stand-alone argument although there will be occasional references to terms and ideas from previous chapters. I mention this because I think this book should really be taken as a series of articles, and not as a whole book. It would be easier to take that way. The first chapter basically tries to define good prose style by reading a lot of different things. Chapter 2 defines Pinker’s style of choice, which he calls “classic style”. Classic style “must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation.” (29) Chapter 3 argues that the reason there is so much bad prose is that many writers suffer from “the curse of knowledge” which is the inability to remember or imagine that your reader might lack knowledge that you the author has. So far so good.
Chapter 4 is where I got stuck. It is the longest chapter and also the most dense. This chapter reviews different methods of analyzing syntax, namely via diagramming. I was good at diagramming; it was the highest test score I got in an undergrad linguistics class. The main idea is that each diagramming method comes with strengths and weaknesses, and that a good knowledge of syntax and structure can help with producing strong, clear prose. I agree, but this was more than just a working knowledge of the subject. This chapter falls prey to the classic criticism of style manuals: the manual is incapable of following its own rules.
Then it’s back to the level of “I can handle this”. Chapter 5 discusses coherence, in both structure and thought. Chapter 6 is long list of classic grammar, punctuation, and word-level questions, including less vs fewer, how to use quotation marks, and modifiers without dangling participles.
This is good book, but it should not be read as book. It should be more of a reference manual. But it’s designed as a book. But it says itself that it is a reference. But … I give up.