Stephen Pinker and The Sense of Style

September 26, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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In a recent blog about the limitations of ChatGPT, this blog touched on the often mundane nature of the chatbot’s output. Having recently been immersed in Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, I suspect good writing is characterised by surprises and maybe even some rough edges. So, what is it that makes a piece of writing interesting? It is arguably not just the content – ChatGPT is reasonably competent at trawling for relevant (and sometimes even factual!) information to include in its responses. But, however plausible the ChatGPT output might be in terms of syntax and semantics, it seems uncannily lifeless and unhuman. It lacks that magic hook that can really lure in the reader. Perhaps ChatGPT is too flawless to grab our attention. What it lacks is a true sense of style.

Pinker begins his treatise on good style with an analysis of several pieces of his favourite writing. He revels in “the effective use of words to engage the human mind”, arguing that “a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures”. The four passages Pinker selects to illustrate these points could not be more different in style or content. But all are united by the way they draw in the reader. Pinker suggests that “good writing can flip the way the world is perceived”. The example chosen to highlight this comes from Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow, which begins “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” The apparent contradiction created by that sentence is immediately resolved by the second line “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born”. The reader is already curious. Preconceptions have been subverted, and the urge to continue reading is almost irresistible.

Dawkins does not disappoint. And nor does Pinker. You might imagine picking apart a text to analyse its stylistic merits would make a dry read, but there are constant treasures to delight over. Pinker has an inestimable appreciation for language, and perhaps more importantly its power to make us think. He is just as likely to extol the virtues of simplicity as complexity, picking out a passage by his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, which prompts profound existential questions with the simple description of an old photograph: “That child is me. But why is she me?”.

Rather more sophisticated linguistic trickery is at play in Pinker’s account of an obituary describing Maurice Sendak’s books as “Roundly praised, intermittently censored, and occasionally eaten”, which he cites as a splendid example of a zeugma, the “intentional juxtaposition of different senses of a single word”. Here the word “book” is evoked both in its conceptual sense as a narrative text, and its physical sense as a bundle of pages. The reference to eating may also remind readers of a famous Sendak anecdote. Having sent a card to thank a child who had written in appreciation of his books, Sendak received a reply from the child’s mother “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” Sendak’s reaction was emphatic “That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”


Reference: Stephen Pinker’s Sense of Style was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House

Image:  Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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