⭑⭑⭑⭑ (4/5 see book reviews)

Steven Pinker is an author I’m sure I’m supposed to dislike. The term “neoliberal apologist” gets thrown around.

Steven Pinker is the author of Enlightenment Now—Bill Gates’s “favorite book of all time”. Any book which provides Bill Gates succor about the world that made him a multi-billionare holds no interest to me.

But even folks who detest his views still concede: he’s an entertaining writer. And books about writing from good writers are interesting to me.

The Classic Style

A writer, like a cinematographer, manipulates the viewer’s perspective on an ongoing story, with the verbal equivalent of camera angles and quick cuts.

– Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

The book focuses on writing classic style prose. Classic style differs from the practical style—the style of Strunk and White and William Zinsser—in two ways:

  • The author engages the reader in a conversation as an equal
  • You’re moving the reader through scenes that convey your point

Practical style focuses on getting information to readers, whereas the classic style’s primary goal is saying something interesting.

Similar to the practical style—you’re attempting to write lean prose, avoid abstractions, and avoid jargon. But only insofar as it furthers the goal of the conversation:

Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.

– Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

Grammar time

This book talks about grammar at a level of detail only a linguist could love.

Modern grammatical theories (like the one in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which I use in this book) distinguish grammatical categories like noun and verb from grammatical functions like subject, object, head, and modifier. And they distinguish both of these from semantic categories and roles like action, physical object, possessor, doer, and done-to, which refer to what the referents of the words are doing in the world.

– Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

In honesty—I loved it, too.

But I still have no idea what a participle is.

I know that a participle is a verb. I know that it needs an auxillary when used as a verb. I know it can be used as an adjective or a noun. Is that all it is? No idea.

I’m also confused about the “irrealis mood.” And all the stuff about Latin words and Greek words: it was too much for me in one reading. But I’m dumb.

The book taught me more about grammar than I knew before. And it provided wonderful reasoning behind the mandates of Strunk and White:

So every time a writer adds a word to a sentence, he is imposing not one but two cognitive demands on the reader: understanding the word, and fitting it into the tree. This double demand is a major justification for the prime directive “Omit needless words.”

– Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

A small point that I’m not qualified to disagree with the author about is the use of active voice.

Active, shmactive!


One hungry heron was seen, as opposed to Birdwatchers saw one hungry heron.

– Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

I found most of his examples contrived: rewrite the damn sentence.


Outside of the idea of the classic style, the other new writing idea I learned from the book was to put important ideas at the end of a sentence:

select the construction that allows you to end a sentence with a phrase that is heavy or informative or both.

– Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

I love dictionaries. And another new idea for me in this book was the “prescriptivist” vs “descriptivist” dictionaries.

The Descriptivists had their way with the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961, which accepted such errors as ain’t and irregardless. This created a backlash that led to Prescriptivist dictionaries such as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Ever since then, Prescriptivists and Descriptivists have been doing battle over whether writers should care about correctness.

Pinker adapted some of this from his article in Slate: False Fronts in the Language Wars


Overall, I’m still firmly on team Strunk and White. But this was a pretty damned entertaining grammar book.

I think I’d rank all the books on writing I’ve read like this:

  1. Strunk and White
  2. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  3. The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
  4. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  5. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost
  6. On Writing by Stephen King

In most ways these books are incomparable. But I did it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.


  • Title: The Sense of Style
  • Author: Steven Pinker
  • Pages: 368
  • Format: EBook
  • Publisher: Viking
  • ISBN: 0670025852
  • Genre: Grammar reference