Virtues of Grammar: The Science and Ethics of Style

By Elizabeth WinklerOctober 24, 2014

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

STEVEN PINKER casts his latest monograph, The Sense of Style, as “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century.” But, in fact, he sets out to answer an ancient question: Can there be a science of persuasion? Stylistic eloquence doesn’t readily lend itself to systematic study; still less can it be taught. Indeed, Pinker admits that when he asked accomplished writers what style manuals they consulted in their training, most answered, “none.” There’s an intuitive, quasi-magical quality to the whole undertaking of effective expression. Even writers, who can find the right words to explain so many things, struggle to explain this. Writing well just “comes” to them. As the classicist Hugh Lawson-Tancred observes, it seems to be a gift, “dispensed among mortals with capricious favoritism, whose results can only otherwise be achieved by fluke and good fortune.”

Pinker wants to show that there is a science of superior prose — but that the laws that govern it aren’t the ones we thought they were. His style guide eschews the traditional focus on the rules of grammar and usage in favor of understanding the psychological roots of good writing: the cognitive and imaginative functions the writer must perform to reach the reader effectively. Such scientific explanation of what works and what doesn’t is more compelling, he claims, in an age that demands reasons and proofs. It’s also easier to absorb and remember than the arbitrary-seeming, old school commandments, the prescriptive lists of dos and don’ts.

To this extent, The Sense of Style represents an evolution of the writing manual genre, building on old favorites like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Pinker doffs his hat to his 19th- and 20th-century predecessors, but the text to which he seems most indebted goes unmentioned: Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric — not just the first study of literary style as a universal vehicle for thought, but also the first study of style’s psychological underpinnings.

According to Lawson-Tancred, Aristotle sought to grasp “the very roots of persuasion itself, which required him to ponder the nature of character and emotion and also the method of demonstration in the absence of deductive certainty.” With The Art of Rhetoric, persuasion became something that “can indeed be taught, but only [with] a deep grasp of some of the most central features of human nature.” Against this background, Pinker’s basic premise — that the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best — sounds entirely Aristotelian. Writing’s scientific exposition, in Pinker’s hands, is a return to these ancient roots, to the Greek model, which so valued cogent expression as to make rhetorical training the mark of an educated citizen.


Pinker, as he does in his other books, pares down complex cognitive phenomena to their elemental aspects. The labor of language, for instance, comes down to this: “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.” It’s a beautiful, simple, startlingly apt image for the triangular relationship between the writer, the reader, and reality. The intention is to show someone something in the world, and the motive is “disinterested truth.” Prose, when it is clear and compelling, becomes a window, a new way of seeing. This is what Pinker calls the “classic style,” defined most basically as “seeing the world.”

Thus the unnatural act of writing mimics two of our most natural acts — talking and seeing. Good style comes less from obeying a list of rules than from understanding this cognitive orientation. Pinker argues that if you think about writing as a stand-in for these other functions, talking and seeing, your writing necessarily becomes more clear, concrete, and persuasive. He claims this perspective can free writers from generically sloppy prose (metadiscourse, “zombie” nouns, unnecessary passives, etc.), but also from the shortcomings of many professional dialects — “academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.” Exemplary passages from Fredric Jameson and Judith Butler drive the point home to comic effect: “The puzzled reader is put on notice that her ability to understand the world counts for nothing; her role is to behold the enigmatic pronouncements of the great scholar. […] What the reader cannot do is understand it — to see with her own eyes what Butler is seeing.”

On the surface, the suggestion seems, perhaps, too easy. If eloquent writing mimics talking and seeing, then why can’t everyone do it? Pinker has a thoroughly pragmatic view of language: the proof of its success, he argues, is clarity and simplicity. But some dialects aren’t meant for everyone to understand. The language of cultural theory or physics or medicine is written for an audience that understands that particular discourse. Is Henry James a bad writer just because many modern readers find his prose tortuous? Is diplomatic language just poorly written jargon? Or is it constructed with extreme sensitivity to the nuances of a conflict and the views of multiple audiences, saying as much as possible to move a discussion an inch in one direction without blowing up relations? Unnecessarily obscure constructions and bad writing can crop up in all of these subcultures, to be sure. But professional languages are often designed with different intentions and different points of reference than mainstream, classical prose.

Even when clarity is valued, though, language that flows like conversation and reveals like sight doesn’t come naturally. The classic style, Pinker is at pains to show, is “a pretense, an imposture, a stance,” and the coherent text itself “a designed object.” Thoughts don’t occur to the writer in the same form that they can be transmitted to and absorbed by the reader. They must be re-fashioned, and making formal language mimic the experiences of talking and seeing requires enormous artifice. Among other things, the writer must imagine what it’s like not to know what he knows, to re-inhabit the perspective of someone encountering and discovering a truth for the first time. This difficulty, which Pinker calls the “curse of knowledge,” can lead to all forms of hard-to-follow prose. Overcoming it requires sustained imaginative leaps, the practice of a kind of intellectual empathy, and the ability to make words effortlessly usher the reader from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge. There’s nothing easy about it.

The way Pinker wants us to think about good writing represents a powerful shift from schoolteacher rule enforcement. It grounds prose composition in experience, in a relation to others and to the world instead of to a series of dictates handed down from on high, which offer only bare-bones guidance anyway. Stylistic eloquence isn’t about grammar; it’s about a quality of mind, a manner of understanding and perceiving. Modern writing manuals have neglected to discuss writing with reference to the mind — as though prose lives only on the insular space of the page, detached from the mind that writes and the mind that reads. Recent advances in cognitive psychology make this discussion more feasible, but they don’t excuse the lapse in other texts; after all, Aristotle understood in the fourth century BCE that any examination of language must contend with the human mind, a cognitive engine requiring in its handling, as Lawson-Tancred puts it, “a degree of flexibility greater than that of the objects of any other of the practical sciences.”


Beneath this argument about writing’s cognitive demands — the demands of truth, empathy, and imagination — there runs another thread. It’s sometimes parallel, mostly peripheral to the science, but it’s Pinker’s most striking — and most Greek — suggestion: writing possesses moral dimensions. Pinker doesn’t make this claim outright, but it bubbles up all over the book, leaving the reader with the distinct sense that a more articulate world might also be a better world.

On the most basic level, clear prose prevents calamitous misunderstanding and miscommunication — not just death on the highway due to a poorly worded sign or emails that lead to a falling out of family members, but bureaucratic and corporate inefficiency and worse, even international political blunders. The failure to communicate well has been, in Pinker’s view, “a pervasive drag on the strivings of humanity.” And if a lack of eloquence can do harm, its presence can surely be a force for good: “Good writing,” Pinker believes, “can flip the way the world is perceived.” It enhances the spread of ideas; at its best, it aims to show truth that was previously unknown and unseen.

But the effect of good writing on the writer is just as important as its effect on the reader. Just as the perspective of the reader promises to change in reading, the perspective of the writer changes in writing — particularly in the work of empathy, the struggle to inhabit the mind of someone who doesn’t know what the writer knows. The imperative to overcome the “curse of knowledge,” to understand another’s perspective so that you can reach them most effectively, is “the bit of writerly advice that comes closest to being sound moral advice: always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel.”

This doesn’t mean good writers are better people. Indeed, Pinker scoffs at the kind of old-fashioned writing advice that takes the tone of moral counsel — as if splitting infinitives was tantamount to sin, or the use of slang a sign of sloth. The commandments of grammar don’t carry the weight of law or ethics, despite your English teacher’s best efforts. Plenty of bad people write like angels, and plenty of angels can’t write to save their life. But the psychological demands of good writing do make you see your subject through other eyes, even if this doesn’t translate to other aspects of life. The point is that the intellectual imagination isn’t enough. Persuasion requires the exercise of the moral imagination too.

Perhaps most significantly, compelling language adds beauty to the world. “To a literate reader,” Pinker writes, “a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.” It increases happiness, for Aristotle as for us, man’s principal pursuit. And the work of improving your writing is, for Pinker, “a lifelong calling.” There are, if not explicitly ethical stakes here, at least personal and spiritual ones.

Pinker wants to help people write better, and his exploration of style is illuminating. But can understanding the psychology of good writing — and its moral properties — really change the way you write? Or does there remain something irreducible and instinctive about the sense of style? As Pinker acknowledges, “sense” can refer to a faculty of mind, but also to matters of taste and discrimination: “Dealing with matters of usage is not like playing chess, proving theorems, or solving textbook problems in physics, where the rules are clear and flouting them is an error. It is more like research, journalism, criticism, and other exercises of discernment.” Science might be able to shed light on what makes good writing work, but good writers perform the mental functions Pinker describes without really thinking about it and without being instructed to do so.

In the end, Pinker’s achievement may lie less in the book’s writing advice and more in its fluent synthesis of psychology, morality, and language. This is to say that The Sense of Style falls, like The Art of Rhetoric before it, into that old and noble tradition — the philosophical vindication of art.


Elizabeth Winkler is a writer based in Washington, DC.

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Winkler is a writer based in Washington, DC. Her articles have appeared in The Economist, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, and The Millions. Follow her on Twitter @Zwinkler89. 


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