Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk


Geoff Pullum says leave it on the shelf.

The voice on BBC radio was that of Professor Steven Pinker, fluent and engaging as ever. But my blood froze as I listened to what he said.

On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was… The Elements of Style !

It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing Ukrainian junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick called Plan 9 From Outer Space high-quality cinematography. It was like seeing Chet Atkins strum–Never mind. I am too dispirited to go on with this potentially entertaining game of analogy-making.

The thing is, Pinker’s own new book, The Sense of Style (Viking, 2014), which of course the ethos of the radio program would not permit him to pick, has solved a problem I’ve had for years. People keep asking me what, given my low opinion of The Elements of Style, I would recommend instead; and I have had little to say except that I wished there were an answer. Today there is an answer: For a sensible guide to what makes good writing good, buy Pinker’s book.

Pinker has just two things in common with the original author of The Elements of Style, William Strunk. First, an Ivy League professorship (Pinker is on the Harvard psychology faculty today, and Strunk taught English at Cornell a hundred years ago). Second, a surname with -nk  in it. The rest is all contrasts:

  • Pinker is an academic superstar known for important research in psychology, psycholinguistics, and cognitive science; Strunk was a scholarly mediocrity who published nothing noteworthy.
  • Pinker has in addition written a shelf of best-selling popular books that have expounded psychology and linguistics to a huge audience around the world; the closest Strunk ever came to influencing a general audience was when he spent some time on a film set in Hollywood acting as one of the two literary advisers for George Cukor’s 1936 film of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Pinker’s book genuinely tackles style, presenting lengthy exemplificatory passages and sifting out the lessons they teach; Strunk’s ill-titled text dealt almost exclusively with punctuation, grammar, and “commonly misused” words or expressions. (In the famous 1959 reissue, the reviser E.B. White admits this, at the beginning of his own contribution, an added final chapter. White does attempt to address writing style, but what he offers, though amusingly written at some points, boils down to a jumble of idiosyncratic and mostly vapid maxims. “Write with nouns and verbs,” says White, as if we didn’t already. “Be clear,” he tells us, as if it had never occurred to us to try. “Avoid foreign languages,” he warns, as if we kept lapsing into Mongolian.)
  • Most importantly, Pinker has a sophisticated knowledge of grammar, and brings a psycholinguist’s expertise to bear on what syntactic and semantic properties make some sentences clunky or hard to understand while others are stylish and readily intelligible. Strunk had only a superficial and imperfect acquaintance with 19th-century traditional grammar (it is fairly clear that he couldn’t even tell passive from active clauses).

So grumble no more that my condemnation of Strunk and White leaves you with nowhere to turn for good writing advice: If you care about language, writing, and style, then buy Pinker’s book. It will amuse, inform, and entertain you, and it actually stands a chance of improving your own writing, whatever your audience.

Just don’t pay any attention to Pinker’s Radio 4 recommendation of the shambling zombie of a book that Jan Freeman once called Frankenstrunk.

Why did Pinker recommend it? Maybe he was just being mischievous, or wanted me to hear him and have a conniption fit (mission accomplished, Steve).

Or maybe he has been brainwashed, the way Winston Smith was eventually convinced to love Big Brother. Steve admitted on the radio that Elements was “put into his hands” when he was in college. Which to my mind just goes to show how important it is for us responsible academics to keep harmful books out of the hands of the young.

Pinker’s book The Sense of Style is subtitled “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.” It is just that, and will be of real value to everyone sincerely interested in being a writer. The same cannot be said of The Elements of Style, the nonthinking person’s guide to writing in the 19th century.

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