Other Books

Run-on Sentence Summary

An entertaining and nontraditional style guide that teaches you how to use common sense and principles of cognitive science to improve your writing.

Impressions

Oh boy, style guides, my favorite genre! Normally, reading one would be a tedious slog through a series of proscriptive rules that feel out of touch with the actual art of writing. Instead of helping you, they give the impression of grumpy old men lamenting the decline of their language. It is hard to understand how lists of rules about splitting infinitives and the like can actually help you improve your ability to communicate.

The Sense of Style flouts this trend, instead relying on common sense and sound advice. Pinker’s style guide is informative, actionable, and actually fun to read. Refreshingly, he ridicules these so-called language mavens, pointing out how:

"According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.”

Instead, the book dives straight into analyzing examples of good writing and explaining the principles that make them work. In subsequent sections, he goes into great detail on how the choices of words, sentences, and overall structure will affect people’s ability to understand. Pinker is a cognitive scientist by training, and all of his advice is based on the theory of how memory and understanding works. Simply, good writing technique is fundamentally about reducing the cognitive load of the reader.

In the final section, he does finally dive into the list of traditional issues, such as split infinitives, but does so with an open mind. When should you use ‘whom’? Writer Calvin Trillin when he wrote,

“As far as I’m concerned, whom is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.”

If someone tells you you cannot end your sentences with prepositions, tell them they don’t know about which they are talking. For some of these issues, he simply throws his hands up in the air, such as in a long section about feminism and gender neutral pronouns.

As you’d expect, the book is extremely well written. It needs to be: I imagine style guides are some of the most scrutinized forms writing out there. Even I, a casual reader, would catch myself doing rhetorical analysis of the book itself. Pinker is witty and entertaining, and his love of language shines. He says the one book he’d bring to a desert island is a dictionary, and mixes words of varying obscurity and formality for a playful effect:

“The irony, of course, is that all too often it is the targets of the vituperation who have history and usage on their side, and the vilifiers who are full of baloney.”

All told, the book was lucid, thorough, and entertaining. You should still read the book, but here are my incomplete notes of some of the actionable advice:

Notes
  • Revise extensively. Seriously, like 10 times if you want to actually be good.

  • To escape the curse of knowledge, have another person read your writing or read it your self after a long break.

  • Avoid jargon and acronyms, or at least make sure you define them first.

  • A classic stylist can explain an esoteric idea in plain language without patronizing his audience. The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.

  • An explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all. For example: Here’s an explanation of the rhetorical term syllepsis: “the use of a word that relates to, qualifies, or governs two or more other words but has a different meaning in relation to each.” Got that? Now let’s say I continue with “… such as when Benjamin Franklin said, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.’”

  • Omit needless words. Brevity is the soul of wit, and of many other virtues in writing. Change “is capable of being” to “can be.”

  • (Usually misattributed to Mark Twain) to “substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be” —though today the substitution would have to be of a word stronger than damn.

  • The deliberate use of surprising transitions—colons, dashes, block quotations—is one of the hallmarks of lively prose.

  • According to studies of writing quality, a varied vocabulary and the use of unusual words are two of the features that distinguish sprightly prose from mush.

  • The best words not only pinpoint an idea better than any alternative but echo it in their sound and articulation, a phenomenon called phonesthetics, the feeling of sound. It’s no coincidence that haunting means “haunting” and tart means “tart,” rather than the other way around.

  • Insist on fresh wording and concrete imagery over familiar verbiage and abstract summary.

  • Avoid clichés. Even when a shopworn image is the best way to convey an idea, a classic writer can keep his reader engaged by remembering what the idiom literally refers to and playing with the image to keep it in her mind’s eye.

  • Use meter and sound that resonate with the meaning and mood.

  • Avoid signposting and metadiscourse: “this section is going to be about…”

  • One way to introduce a topic without metadiscourse is to open with a question: This chapter discusses the factors that cause names to rise and fall in popularity. What makes a name rise and fall in popularity?

  • Classic style is confident about its own voice. If you’re not comfortable using an expression without apologetic quotation marks, you probably shouldn’t be using it at all. It’s not that good writers never hedge their claims. It’s that their hedging is a choice, not a tic.

  • Writerly habits that result in soggy prose: metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologizing, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives. Writers who want to invigorate their prose could try to memorize that list of don’ts. But it’s better to keep in mind the guiding metaphor of classic style: a writer, in conversation with a reader, directs the reader’s gaze to something in the world. Each of the don’ts corresponds to a way in which a writer can stray from this scenario.

  • Avoid garden path sentences by reading them aloud.

  • Old before new: use grammar to rearrange your sentences so that the new ideas fall at the end.

  • Language is structured like a tree but spoken as a string. Don’t embed long ideas in the middle of sentences, because it taxes people’s short term memory to remember where they are in the tree. Compare right branching: "The woman saw the boy that heard the man that left.” with center-embedding: “The man the boy the woman saw heard left.”

  • Many style experts warn against the compulsion to name things with different words when they are mentioned multiple times. The writer should refer to each theme in a consistent way, one that allows the reader to know which is which. This forms “arcs of coherence” across a long passage.

  • Avoid negation when possible. The cognitive difference between believing that a proposition is true (which requires no work beyond understanding it) and believing that it is false (which requires adding and remembering a mental tag) has enormous implications for a writer. The most obvious is that a negative statement such as The king is not dead is harder on the reader than an affirmative one like The king is alive.

  • The amount of verbiage one devotes to a point should not be too far out of line with how central it is to the argument.

  • Vary punctuation for effect. When the second sentence intentionally interrupts the flow of the discussion, requiring the reader to wake up, think twice, or snap out of it, a writer can use a dash—dashes can enliven writing, as long as they are used sparingly.

  • Just use the damn oxford comma, there’s no drawback and you avoid ambiguity like this “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

  • for the love of god don’t use quotes for emphasis.

Final Thoughts

This random review also condenses a lot of the material if you are lazy.

Favorite Quote

“Richard Feynman once wrote, “If you ever hear yourself saying, ‘I think I understand this,’ that means you don’t.”