Friday, 11 March 2016

Book Review - "The Sense of Style" by Steven Pinker

I've read a few books on writing in my time, some of them I've read more than once, and some of them I've got halfway through before wondering where in fact the author had been coming from when they wrote it.

It has to be said that most of the books that fall into the second category are by authors who only write "How to write" books, and haven't actually managed to do what they're supposed to be telling us how to do...

This one I liked and disliked in equal measure, and that's a rare thing for me.

The book is split into several sections, detailing why and where language is used to obfuscate rather than illuminate, where many are in love with the idea of rambling on about the very nature of the thing they are writing and how they are writing it, rather than just bloody well writing it...

This struck a chord with me, my own prose is terse at best, trimmed with a chainsaw would be a more accurate description, I took to heart the directive of Omit Needless Words many years ago and have been living to it since, so a lot of what was said resonated well.  Mr Pinkers commentary on how legalese would not be required if everyone just said what they meant and meant what they said was well made, as was his point that much of any scientific paper pads itself with needless words because to speak using as few words as possible would take away much of the mysticism of the science itself, something that many do not want.

He also goes on at length about how the various parts of any sentence can be amended to make more sense, how the correct use of words makes every piece of writing much more accessible, and not just to those it was intended for, but for everyone.

The first part of the book I would recommend with my whole heart.

Imagine my sadness when I found the second half filled with the level of needless embellishment that the first half had cautioned against...

Where the first half of the book shone the light of clarity upon the words and asked that we do not add needless embellishment to anything, the second half proceeded to make as many examples as possible to show the things that had been done wrong by others.

A single example would have been more than enough...

But it goes on, every example presented is a clear example of how the first half of the book is right, but I'd already accepted that truth and did not need it driving home any further, and in truth, with example after example and no new points being made, I lost focus upon it and it took me a few more days to finish off.

Overall it's an interesting book, worth the price for the first half alone and a very interesting study in the use of language from someone who cares about it a great deal, but if, like me, you tire of endless examples, take the inspiration of the first half and use it as it was intended.