DBW Review: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Writers are surrounded by style guides instructing them on how to write. Probably the most popular of these is The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, which is a mainstay of colleges and universities. In a previous post, I lamented how prescriptive guides such as this one are used to attack other writers and promote a black-and-white view of what constitutes “bad writing.”

The Sense of StyleBut there are other guides that take a more flexible and positive approach to writing style. One of these is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a linguist and cognitive scientist who is known for writing thoughtful and provocative works on language and the mind. In this book, he applies his scientific background to advice on how to write in a way that will reach your audience.

What I Liked

Pinker’s approach to style is to recommend approaches that make it easier for the audience to mentally process your writing. This doesn’t mean that writing needs to be plain or simple, but that it needs to match people’s cognitive approach to language. Instead of stating universal style rules (like a prescriptive guide tends to do), Pinker explains why a particular approach is successful and in what situations. I found his brain-focused perspective fascinating.

Pinker covers a wide range of topics that are useful to the writer. He elaborates on the common advice to “show, don’t tell” by describing the components of a classic writing style. He discusses how sentences are constructed and identifies constructions that are easier for the mind to process (using sentence diagrams). He provides various tips on how to make your writing coherent across sentences. I especially liked his list of methods for relating two statements together, such as through contrast or generalization.

Pinker ends his book with a substantial chapter (over 100 pages) on “Telling Right from Wrong,” where he provides advice on aspects of grammar, word choice, and punctuation without resorting to a black-and-white list of rules. He incorporates research on actual language usage to support his choices. I can see this chapter in particular being a useful ongoing reference for writers.

What Could Be Better

The “Telling Right from Wrong” chapter is a long one, but it is broken down into small sub-topics that are logically presented. Some of the other chapters in this book are also long, but there are no clear break points. I found it a bit unfortunate that a writer who talks about how we process information in chunks did not include sub-headings in these chapters. I sometimes lost the thread when I had to put the book down in the middle of a chapter.

The first chapter talks about how to identify good prose by developing an ear for writing. Pinker analyzes some writing samples to provide us with his idea of good prose. I didn’t find this section as helpful because there were too many ideas being presented and they didn’t tie in as well with his overall theme.

Favourite Learning Moment

After describing how sentences are constructed and the easiest ways for readers to understand them, Pinker has this to say about the prescriptive style “rule” to omit needless words:

The advice to omit needless words should not be confused with the puritanical edict that all writers must pare every sentence down to the shortest, leanest, most abstemious version possible. Even writers who prize clarity don’t do this. That’s because the difficulty of a sentence depends not just on its word count but on its geometry.

This was an “a-ha” moment for me: A long sentence can be easier to read than a shorter one, depending on how it is constructed.


If you are interested in the whys of language rules and are not put off by academic-style writing, then this is a great book to add to your collection. It’s the type of book that gets you thinking and makes you appreciate the wonder of language. I’ll let Pinker have the last word:

[Grammar] should be thought of … as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head into another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful.


If you are interested in reading about other writing resources, you may want to take a look at my Resources page.

If you’ve read this book, what did you think? What is your ‘go-to’ manual for advice on writing style? Do you prefer the idea of universal rules, or do you like to have more flexibility?


Β© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

25 thoughts on “DBW Review: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

    1. That’s exactly it, Carrie. It’s one of those books where you need to take your time, but you end up getting a lot out of it. It’s aimed at writers who already have good knowledge of language and grammar and are looking for more insight.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Nice summary, Sue. I’m glad you picked up on Pinker’s discussion of the geometry of a sentence. When I read that section of the book, I was particularly struck by the observation that sentences with right-branching trees tend to be easier to follow than those with left-branching onesβ€”in English, at least.

    Speaking of sentences with interesting geometry, here’s one of my favourites (not from Pinker’s book):

    Fish fish fish eat eat eat.

    Perhaps surprisingly, this is parsable, and no extra punctuation is needed. It’s a nice sentence to think about but terrible in terms of communication!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Paul! Yes, that idea of the right-branching trees being easier to follow made a lot of sense to me. And I love your sentence, although I’d hate to see it in someone’s writing! πŸ˜‰


  2. That sounds interesting! I have the elements of style, I picked it up, tried to read it, and it just wasn’t for me. I like the sound of Pinker’s approach much more though, I’ll have to give it a whirl. The geometry hint is fantastic, it makes total sense, and it’s something that probably intuitively a lot of us realise but it’s great to get a better handle on these things and be more in control of language. Thank you for sharing that Sue!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Celine! I used to handle grammar intuitively, but I found that the more I learned about it, the more my writing improved because I now had a good framework for it. Pinker’s writing is dense but never boring. So many interesting thoughts in there. I hear you about the Elements of Style, it just bores me. πŸ™‚


      1. Yes that’s exactly the same as me — I don’t know any grammar rules really, it’s all intuitive and it’s worked well enough until now but I really want to get a proper handle on it. I’ll report back once I’ve read Pinker’s book! πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hmm this sounds pretty interesting. The cognitive approach to sentence structure sounds highly fascinating. Though I do like “The Elements of Style,” reading a non black-and-white approach could be refreshing. I think it’s important to keep in mind that many of these writing “rules” are really just guidelines. Haha, it makes me think of the pirate code in Pirates of the Caribbean. πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a fantastic thought! I’d love to be a language pirate. πŸ˜‰ I like reading greyish approaches, because I feel like they truly stretch your mind.


  4. Great review Sue! I’ll have to pick-up a copy. One can always learn more about everything. Especially language and its usage. It would be interesting to engage Pinker in a discussion on how language and grammar have changed over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Shawn! Yes, I imagine Pinker would be a fascinating person to chat with over lunch on this topic, especially since he is the Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. I’m sure he’s learned a lot about the history of our language!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As science has proven that in order to retain new information presented to us–like the rules of grammar and styles of writing–our brains perform a great deal better if we have ourselves a heaping dose of dopamine. And the dopamine rush is usually only activated when we’re presented with something new and exciting. Which is why I think it takes an enormously clever instructor to take on the tedious work of presenting writing guidelines to us in a way that will have us sit up and take notice.
    A massive mountain to climb.
    It sounds like Pinker did a fairly admirable job, Sue. I’ll be curious to see if my brain gets a much needed chemical flush.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Knowing your penchant for science, Shelley, I think you’ll find this one worth exploring. I love how Pinker triggers new ideas around traditionally boring subjects. Of course, I get that dose of dopamine from learning complex new things, so I’m a bit biased. πŸ™‚


  6. I’m inclined to think at least mildly prescriptive style guides useful things. Their rules tend to make it easy for someone to write without disasters, that is, to write so that the text is at least understandable. It may not be artistic prose, but it’s not a mess either.

    That is a virtue, especially considering that most people don’t write enough to have their own sense of style or their own aesthetic goals.

    Granted that no rule can always, in every case, invariably be the best choice to make. But most people don’t need their prose to be the best it can be; they just need to have it be functional. And a rule to work from can also help one overcome the terror of having no idea how to begin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joseph, you’ve made some great points here. Thank you for the food for thought!

      I agree that having understandable text is the first priority, and that this is where rules are essential. It’s like building the skeleton. Once you get beyond function, and are looking at how to make your writing even better (and adding on more layers), it then becomes the time to look at different styles and how they might apply to your writing.

      I especially like your point about overcoming fear – the most helpful guides are the ones that make rules understandable and approachable. I wish there were more of those!


  7. This one has been on my wishlist for a while, but you just reminded me of it! I’d welcome any style guides you’ve got recommendations for, since I need to pack them in this year for my grad school application. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like a fun reading list, Alex. πŸ™‚ I have a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style that I use for editing – I certainly wouldn’t recommend reading that dense tome from front to back! I enjoyed Constance Hale’s book Sin and Syntax a lot – you might want to add that one to your list.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m usually a bit dubious about “how to write” books. Most of the ones I’ve come across seem to want to stifle creativity and have writers follow a strict set of rules. These rules differ widely from book to book too. However, this one seems a little different. It seems more like advice than rules. I think I may check this one out πŸ™‚
    Popping by on the A to Z Road Trip

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome to my blog, Debbie! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yes, there are a lot of writing books that come across as very restrictive. I think you’ll enjoy the thoughtfulness behind this one. πŸ™‚


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