Recent read: The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker

A tech editing client–an engineer who can write for real–said such good things about this book that I bought and read it. This vindicated his praise.

One might view the editing world as a stylistic continuum. Let us define the extreme left as accepting of nearly any stylistic oddness or grammatical perversity. The extreme right lives and dies by style manuals (AP, APA, Chicago, etc.), grammar guides, and archaic meanings. The extreme left is so fluid it has hardly any rules; the extreme right not only has them, but will follow them right off a cliff. (No direct political analogy is intended, though I won’t say none could reasonably be made.)

If you visit editors’ forums, most of the loudest voices are found on the moderate to far right. Agonized posts abound: “Hey, edi-buddies, I’m dying here. I have a sentence in which I can’t figure out where to put commas. It’s four in the morning and I’ve been mutilating my soul in an effort to solve the problem. Help!” I never bother pointing out the obvious, because no one is so strident as a far-right editor catching another editor in some tiny deviation from the strict orthodoxy of the First Church of Style Manual Orthodoxy. I can’t gain anything from fighting with them, and I don’t enjoy the debate nor do I care what they say. I just let them do their thing somewhere I am not.

What would the far left do? Not much. All the client must tell them is “that’s just my style,” and they’ll roll over. Book without upper case? Well, if that’s just your style… Book written in text-speak? Wouldn’t want to invalidate youth opinions. Street-speak? Dissent would be…racist! And so on, usually in the direction of rolling over and letting this or that demographic define its own language.

And what’s wrong with that? some might ask. Nothing, provided that demographic is the writer’s only audience, and therefore that it doesn’t give a damn about being intelligible or comfortable to anyone else. “Hi. I write like garbage but I require you to read and respect my material” is not a reasonable proposition. The reader always has the right to stop reading. Making demands of the reader rarely works. She just closes the book or browser window, flips a bird if she’s feeling annoyed, and does something else.

I find myself on the moderate left wing of this continuum, a little to Pinker’s right. He and I agree that “literally” must not be used as “figuratively,” for example. We need a word that means, well, the literal rather than metaphorical meaning of an expression. If you were literally floored, you were on the ground. If your head literally exploded or someone literally ripped your heart out, you weren’t alive to describe it. He’s a little more tolerant of beginning a sentence with a preposition, and he’s willing to see “to comprise” wander afield from its standard translation as “to consist of,” which I am not. Those are tiny shadings of degree.

My governing principle is not complicated: Editorial judgments depend on context. Should we use fewer adverbs? Generally yes, when feasible. Is there a place for strange styles? I don’t know until you show it to me in context and we see whether it works. Should a book about inner-city gangs be written in gangland style? If it works well, perhaps, so let’s see it and determine whether it works. If not, maybe the fix can preserve much of its flavor.

Here’s what to like about Pinker. As a student and educator in the field of psycholinguistics, he’s deep in the ways our minds use language. When there’s a hitch in a sentence, I can usually say what needs to be done, but I can’t always articulate why. Pinker explains that and many other nuances of the English language. It’s not a grammar guide, but it does examine many aspects of language in light of the divide between Prescriptivists (the language standards’ right wing) and Descriptivists (the left wing). He isn’t intimidated by the Red Pen of Disapproval.

The language’s right wing seems to want the language frozen in time. To that group, for example, “ain’t” could never be a legitimate word. Whatever is considered correct today is treated as if it were correct for the millennium or so in which something like the English language has existed in discernibly different form from its Germanic extended family. Pinker demonstrates that language evolves whether editorial stuffed shirts like it or not, and that the Bemoaning of the Decline in Writing Standards has been with us for a very long time. Every generation does it. Put another way, the stuffed shirts of 1822 and 1922 would scowl at what the stuffed shirts of 2022 consider acceptable.

Every generation’s has the conceit of having lived in Big Important Times. Whatever it learned in childhood was The Right Way, with every later generation being selfish, lazy slobs with no respect. To this day most people sixty and over insist on two spaces after a period (and if they paid attention, the exclamation point and colon). Why? Because Mrs. Nitpickingham taught them two spaces in their typing class, and damn it, that makes it correct for all time and eternity. Never mind that Mrs. Nitpickingham (my own was a dotty but pleasant elderly lady who troweled on eyeshadow like iridescent purple bat wings extending from her eyelids) never used an electric typewriter and passed away before the advent of the IBM PC; she could not have envisioned self-publishing. Text-speak? Let’s be glad for her that she never saw it develop; same for my elderly high school English teacher, who looked like Groucho Marx and sounded a bit like Andy Rooney if he’d smoked all his life. In the meantime, every client over sixty argues with me about two spaces vs. one. I explain why the restriction no longer makes sense nor is the standard. Tough, most say, that’s what Mrs. Nitpickingham taught me and that’s what’s correct. It is the hill they choose to die on. It’s the wrong one.

It could be worse. My wife sometimes leaves three spaces, and she’s an excellent typist. I sometimes think she’s just messing with me.

If you want to see someone make a good case for the steady evolution of language and usage–someone doing so not because he doesn’t know the rules and won’t learn them, but because he knows them well enough to know when to bend or break them–Steven Pinker is your guy.

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