I have a confession to make. I’m one of those dorky people who reads grammar/writing style guides for fun (as if that comes as a surprise to any of our readers here). And so, it should further come as no surprise that I found Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century! to be a sheer delight.
First of all, the writing is simply delicious. He writes about grammar and usage, but he could be writing about anything: the periodic table, knitting, the life cycle of potato bugs. Good writing is good writing, and his writing is amazing, regardless of content.
But the content is good too. Ever wondered when you should use “like” and when you should use “as”? Yes, admit that you have. Well your answer starts on p. 217.
Have you ever felt like there is something not quite right about identifying a condition or circumstance as “very unique”? You should have. Page 244 will tell you why (hint: the secret is in the definition of “unique,” which literally means “one of a kind.” Just as you can’t be a little bit married or a little bit pregnant, you can’t be a little bit unique (though I’m sure we’ve all heard the term “very pregnant.” Is that, too, incorrect? I’m sure Pinker could tell us).
Ever wondered if you could/should use “either” to refer to more than two possibilities? I had too. Your answer begins on p. 251.
And isn’t it annoying how English has no gender-neutral pronoun? I’ve often thought so. Pinker has too, which he addresses on pp. 255-262, including clever Tyrannosaurus-Rex comic strips for illustrations. Should English adopt/create one? What do you think of “thon”? That’s what the T-Rex offers.
One of the most fascinating sections for me was where he did a quick and dirty breakdown of commonly misused words, with the preferred usage in one column and the incorrect but often more commonly used one in another. How, for example, do you pronounce “homogeneous”? With the suffix –eous pronounced like “homo-genius”? You are correct. See p. 274.
How about “parameter”? Do you think that refers to a variable (if so, you are correct) or a boundary, condition, or limit (in which case you are WRONG!)? See p. 278.
And how about the tricky difference between “lie” and “lay”? He explains it clearly and concisely on p. 283.
And he wraps up the book with an even, thought-provoking, and I thought very fair analysis of the dangers of pure prescriptivism. pp. 300-304. And if you really want to dork out, he includes a helpful and quite comprehensive glossary as well.
Okay, I now probably seem even more dorky than when I started. That is fine. What I really liked about it was the writing. Some of what I learned will be useful, in both my personal and professional writing, but it was mostly just for fun. Unlike other usage guides, you can read right through this. It would never be confused for a novel, but there are lots of funny examples and anecdotes. As a writer, Steven Pinker is so good, I would definitely read more of his books, regardless of topic. It’s fun reading someone who loves the English language as much as I do.