It is said that you should never ask a linguist for advice on grammar because the answer will always start with, “Well, it depends,” and everything after that will leave you more confused than before.

But we need linguists to help us make sense of language because it makes us better writers. This is why I’ve been looking forward to Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style.” Pinker writes that his book “is designed for people who know how to write and want to write better. This includes students who hope to improve the quality of their papers, aspiring critics and journalists.”

And Pinker doesn’t disappoint. Starting off, he notes the muddled approach of many style manuals: “The rules often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect.” It takes a linguist to sort these out. Pinker’s knowledge of cognitive psychology and linguistics allows him to give well-argued reasons for following or flouting particular rules of usage.

The opening two chapters, about writing in general, are, unfortunately, the weakest chapters. The first offers examples of what Pinker considers good writing, which despite explanation, leave the reader somewhat unclear about why these were chosen. He then turns to the idea of classic style “as an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.”

Pinker tells us what classic style is not — contemplative, romantic, oratorical, practical, postmodern — but he is less definite about what it is, telling us that its “guiding metaphor is seeing the world” and that “the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.”Mixed metaphors aside, the chapter contains helpful tips on signposting and keeping the text concrete.

"The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century" by Steven Pinker. (Viking)

But most readers are likely to be especially interested in the last chapter, which deals with specific usages. Pinker treats us like intelligent adults and argues that nuanced thinking matters. “The idea that there are exactly two approaches to usage — all the traditional rules must be followed, or else anything goes — is the sticklers’ founding myth,” he says.

A good example is the stickers’ obsession with the alleged misuse of “like” where “as” or “such as” should be used. In 1936, H.A. Treble and G.H. Vallins stated the case quite simply, or simplistically, as it turned out. In their “A.B.C. of English Usage,” they considered “like” to be “an adjective — not a preposition . . . and certainly not a conjunction.” Even 60 years later, R.W. Burchfield, in his “New Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” found that “ ‘like’ as a conjunction is struggling towards acceptable standard or neutral ground,” but he concluded that it wasn’t there yet.

However, the linguistically minded Bergen and Cornelia Evans noted in “A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage” (1957) that “when ‘like’ is followed by a full clause instead of a simple noun or noun equivalent object, it is being used as a conjunction. . . . Some people believe that it is a grammatical mistake to use ‘like’ in this way. But they are a minority.” And in 2004, the linguist Pam Peters wrote, “There never was a general principle as to why ‘like’ could not be used conjunctively, and it is now strongly supported by corpus data from around the English-speaking world.”

For his part, Pinker shows that the problem evaporates when you understand that “like” may take a clause as well as a noun phrase as its complement. For that reason, the sentence “I feel good, like I knew that I would” is perfectly acceptable.

Another common controversy surrounds the use of “unique,” which, as an absolute adjective, cannot be graded with an adverb such as “very.” In his “Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words” (1984), Bill Bryson stated that “unique means the only one of its kind. It is incomparable. One thing cannot be more unique than another.”

The more linguistically savvy “Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” (1989) discusses “unique” in a long, three-column discussion and concludes: “Those who insist that ‘unique’ cannot be modified by such adverbs as ‘more,’ ‘most,’ and ‘very’ are clearly wrong: our evidence shows that it can be and frequently is modified by such adverbs.”

Pinker likewise argues that the prejudice against “very unique” is founded on flawed logic. “Unique,” he writes, “must be defined relative to some scale of measurement, [and] the concept of ‘unique’ is meaningful only after you specify which qualities are of interest to you and which degree of resolution or grain size you’re applying.” Such reasonableness — combined with a firm grasp of linguistic history, makes “The Sense of Style” a particularly useful guide.

On the back cover, John McWhorter’s blurb reads, “Pinker has written the Strunk and White for a new century.” I hope that McWhorter was referring to the popularity of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” rather than to its linguistic acumen. Even though Pinker says that he does not “have the desire, to say nothing of the ability, to supplant The Elements of Style,” I certainly hope that “The Sense of Style” will do just that. It will do much good if it finds its way onto the desks of college students, academics, journalists, government officials or anyone else who wants to write well.

Straaijer is a linguist researching English usage at Leiden University in the Netherlands.


The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Steven Pinker

Viking. 359 pp.