Steven Pinker, the Harvard linguist and psychologist, is one of that new breed of top-flight scientists and teachers, like the physicist Brian Greene and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who also write uncommonly well. To those of us who try to write for a living and couldn’t pass a science course, let alone teach one, such people are a little annoying. And now, not content with just poaching, Pinker has set himself up as a gamekeeper of sorts; he’s bringing out a manual, telling the rest of us how writing ought to be done. The title, “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” suggests it’s even meant to supplant that classic text “The Elements of Style,” by Will Strunk and E. B. White.
Though still revered, “The Elements of Style,” to be honest, is a little dated now, and just plain wrong about some things. Strunk and White are famously clueless, for example, about what constitutes the passive voice. Their book also has some of the hectoring, preachy tone that creeps into so many discussions about writing, though it’s not as extreme as Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” which declares that people who misuse apostrophes “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”
Pinker is not as pithy as Strunk and White: There’s nothing in his book to rival their succinct, often-quoted dictum “Omit needless words.” But his book is more contemporary and comprehensive than “The Elements of Style,” illustrated with comic strips and cartoons and lots of examples of comically bad writing. His voice is calm, reasonable, benign, and you can easily see why he’s one of Harvard’s most popular lecturers. He means to take some of the anxiety out of writing, and when it comes to questions of grammar and usage, he’s a liberal, much looser and more easygoing than the copy editors at this newspaper, for example, whom he would dismiss as “purists.” At several points in “The Sense of Style,” Eleanor Gould, the legendary grammarian at The New Yorker, would have written in the margin, as she used to on proofs that particularly exasperated her, “Have we completely lost our mind?”