Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style

Over the summer break I found time to read Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style.

 In ‘The Sense of Style’  he argues that all the changes brought about by the internet make style more important than ever. He gives three reasons for this: The first is  writers will always need to get their ideas across and many misunderstandings have arisen because of poorly worded instructions. However, in this world with so many demands for readers’ attention, those messages must be clear, concise, and accessible. In this age of technology this imperative is more relevant today than ever.

The second reason he gives is ‘that style earns trust’ (page 9). If a writer takes the time to construct clear, well worded and accurate prose then the chances are these qualities will carry across into the way they conduct themselves in daily life.

The third reason is purely aesthetic. There is nothing more pleasing than a piece of writing that captures the essence of a situation or scene or as Pinker says: ‘…an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.’ (page 9)

So I have thoroughly enjoyed the insights Steven Pinker brings to the idea of style in language.

Style is not grammar nor is it spelling. Style is determined by the way we deliver our ideas and the way those ideas are received. The exciting thing about Steven Pinker’s work is that he moves language beyond its grammatical constraints and while he talks about grammar he goes one step further and discusses the effect of the way words are put together.

He consistently argues for clarity and reminds us to try to think as if what we know does not exist so that we see what we are saying from the point of view of the listener. This is always relevant for people who have worked on a project for a long time and lived with its gestation so they know the project in ways no other can. Steven Pinker calls this the Curse of Knowledge, which is the difficulty we have imagining how difficult it is for someone not to know what we know.

In order to bridge that gap he calls for us to strip our language back to its simplest form and he gives examples of this. I think it is useful to quote examples because I know we will recognise some of the phrase constructions:

Make an appearance with            becomes             appear with

Is capable of being                          becomes              can be

Is dedicated to providing              becomes              provides

For the purpose of                          becomes              to

There are many more and he lists them on page 105.

What I find helpful about his book is that he uses examples from today’s language and challenges us to think about how we use language and how style affects how words are used to form sentences and paragraphs. The way they are constructed determines its ease of reading and consequently understanding. I wonder how many would agree that language is the window into human nature. What, for example, does a tendency to write in the passive voice say about me?

And on passive voice he does say we are always counselled to avoid the passive voice but there is a place in the world of writing for passive voice especially when we want to distance ourselves from the actor. However, consider these two sentences and you decide which is clearer:

‘Extreme exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms.’ (passive)

‘Using a generator indoors can kill you in minutes.’ (active)

I still have more to read so will continue sharing his ideas with you. This topic is particularly relevant to us because it supports the principle underlying The Style Guide™. Style is not a ‘nice to have’ but an essential part of writing well.

There is an excellent TED talk by Steven Pinker  where he concludes ‘language is a collective human creation, reflecting human nature, how we conceptualise reality and relate to one another.’

There are also many links at

Source: Pinker, Steven The Sense of Style Allen Lane, USA, 2014

Steven Pinker
style guide


That makes complete sense to me. Be clear but brief and think of your audience. Style is important and it either captures you or you go "nah... it doesn't grab me. I've got something better to do."