Book review: The Sense of Style – The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker

I enjoyed most of Steven Pinker’s, The Sense of Style – The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

My computer puts a green wavy line under the second definite article in that title, apparently because it doesn’t like the capitalisation. Just illustrating that we can all find something to argue about when deciding how groups of words should be written. I could object to the inelegance of the occurrence of two definite articles in so few words, and I could wonder at the ambiguity: who is the thinking person, the author or any reader who finds the book a useful guide?

And arguments can get heated. To deter criticism – rather as Kremlin parades of nuclear missiles averted Moscow’s annihilation – Pinker ends with five things an antagonist should do before engaging. The fifth includes this:

“Psychologists have shown that in any dispute both sides are convinced that they themselves are reasonable and upright and that their opposite numbers are mulish and dishonest. [Footnoting Haidt, J. 2012. The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon, and Pinker, S. 2011. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking, chapter 8.]”

Squabbles about being right or wrong are beside the point. The point is style, not grammar. And Pinker concludes by saying that the reasons to strive for good style are:

“to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”

And how to achieve good style? Pinker describes his own writing method, presumably used for this book: rework every sentence, revise a chapter two or three times before showing it to anyone, revise again at least twice in response to feedback, then give the whole book “at least two complete passes of polishing” before it goes to the copy editor for a couple more rounds of tweaking.

Good style doesn’t come easily. And what is the thing that all this revision is trying to get into the writing? Pinker gives plenty of examples of how writing can be improved. In the end, however, all that can really be said by way of defining good style, it seems to me, is that it feels right, and in the case of a revision it feels better than what went before. And this improvement would be accepted by most adults who have English as their first language and who appreciate good writing (the thinking people of his title). Read aloud, to get syntax right so that readers don’t stumble: “laboratory studies have shown that even skilled readers have a little voice running through their heads the whole time.” If it doesn’t sound right it’s not good style.

In one – what is for me significant – respect I find Pinker’s style repellent. I suspect his ears (as he says in relation to a different topic) have “been contaminated by a habit … to avoid spitballs from the Gotcha! Gang.” It seems to me that his ears have been contaminated in the academic environment by the requirement, appropriate though it may be during a developmental stage of young people’s education, to avoid the sexism of using he to include the female gender, by using he alternately with she, or by using the phrase he or she, or by using their to refer to a singular of either gender.

I agree that sexist language should be avoided, but the right way to do it is to revise until the need for reference to gender disappears. I agree with Antonin Scalia on this (see my review of Scalia and Garner, Making Your Case – The Art of Persuading Judges).

Pinker begins (according to my Kindle app this is p (iv)) by telling us that he will “avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she … [by] consistently referring to a generic writer of one sex and a generic writer of another. The male gender … will represent the writer in this chapter; the roles will alternate in subsequent ones.” But later (p 260) he refers again to science: “Experiments that measure readers’ comprehension times to the thousandth of a second have shown that the singular they causes little or no delay, but generic he slows them down a lot.”

So generic he is bad. Presumably generic she is too. So Pinker’s plan was to alternate bad style chapters with other bad style chapters.

Although he acknowledges that he or she is clumsy (p 256), his plan leads Pinker to do worse by alternating male and female pronouns, even in the one sentence (p 29): “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.”

This would have been better: “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, bringing it to the reader’s attention.” And even better: “The writer can bring something new to the reader’s attention.”

And sillier too is the image one gets of Pinker marking a student’s paper, when he says that (p 28) a “college student who writes a term paper is pretending that he knows more about his subject than the reader and that his goal is to supply the reader with information she needs …”.

Better would have been: “a college student who writes a term paper is pretending to know more about its subject than the reader and that the goal is to supply the reader with needed information.” Even better: “a college student who writes a term paper is pretending to tell the reader something new.”

My suggestions are not perfect, and I’m not calling Pinker mulish, but they point to directions for further revisions.

This narrow point of objection to Pinker’s style may not be shared by you (I have done this sort of thing before), and it doesn’t really diminish the value of the book. A good guide for everything except avoidance of sexist language.

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Book review: Lord Mansfield – Justice in the Age of Reason by Norman S Poser

If you are not yet in love with eighteenth century London, Lord Mansfield – Justice in the Age of Reason by Norman S Poser will get you started. If, as mine did, your infatuation began with Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., you will be well prepared. But Poser’s account is so straightforward and clearly written that there is really no threshold of preparation to be overcome.

Both Boswell and Mansfield (born William Murray) were social climbers. Both were lawyers. Both were Scottish. They knew each other. In April of 1772 they appeared on opposite sides in an appeal in the House of Lords, and Murray won. Murray was educated in England, after at age 13, and unaccompanied, he rode a horse to London from Edinburgh, never seeing his parents again, to attend Westminster School. Johnson observed to Boswell: “Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.” Boswell was educated in Scotland and Holland.

As a lawyer Murray had an appreciation of Roman law and as a judge he was inclined to be guided by principles rather than rules, introducing what some thought was an alarming unpredictability into the common law. Poser summarises this (p 402):

“His study of the great philosophers of law instilled in him a belief that all law was based on morality, reason, and human nature, which were the same everywhere, even though customs, mores, and traditions differ from country to country.”

Poser’s review of the courts in Westminster Hall is extraordinarily clear, and it is only regrettable that those who taught me legal history, and who wrote the textbooks, were not so interesting. The times were ones of, by our standards, corruption. Judicious payments could lead to judicial office. Judges kept for themselves a proportion of the court fees in cases they heard. Lord Mansfield – he insisted on being ennobled as a condition for his acceptance of the position of Chief Justice of the court of King’s Bench – on occasion was in the House of Lords when appeals from his own decisions were heard. His fear of exposure for a youthful indiscretion, which could have led to accusations of treason, led him to be unduly concerned with placating those in political power. But this was widely known anyway, and he was occasionally subjected to harsh criticism in print.

Murray was so able a lawyer, particularly because of his learning and his eloquence, that he quickly became a leader of the profession. He amassed a fortune, even before going to the bench – indeed it was probably his potential financial sacrifice that gave him the leverage to demand the peerage. He invested in mortgages on properties owned by aristocrats. He was incurably ambitious. As Horace Walpole wrote, “he knew it was safer to expound laws than to be exposed to them.”

He was an autocratic judge, although unafraid of admitting that he had been wrong. Poser gives us this:

“when asked why he had changed his mind on a particular point of law, he answered that it only showed that he was wiser today than he had been the day before.”

I can’t help but wonder whether Bramwell B was thinking of this when he said, in Andrews v Styrap (1872) 26 LT 704, at p 706: “the matter does not appear to me now as it appears to have appeared to me then”.

Mansfield worked extremely hard as a judge. He sat long hours and kept cases going even after he had gone home: juries would sometimes have to visit him in Bloomsbury Square to return their verdicts. His instructions to juries were alien to our standards, and he had a rather flexible attitude to penal laws he didn’t like. On one occasion he told a jury that (pp 352-353)

“… These penal laws were not meant to be enforced except at proper seasons, when there is a necessity for it; or, more properly speaking, they were not meant to be enforced at all, but were merely made in terrorem

” Take notice, if you bring him in guilty the punishment is very severe; a dreadful punishment indeed! Nothing less than perpetual imprisonment!”

Americans make a hero of Mansfield, and of his contemporary Blackstone, because they inherited the common law as it then was. More realistically, he had characteristics that are all too familiar: he was erudite, opinionated, a bully, a climber, avaricious and ambitious, acquisitive and greedy. He ended his years at his (then) country house, Kenwood in Hampstead, obese and arthritic, having clung to office until his inability to write forced him into retirement. In some ways, too, he was very kind, but he had a lot to be kind with.

Although he had, and apparently enjoyed, a long marriage, there were no children. As a ladies’ man he seems to have fitted Clive James’s description of Isaiah Berlin:

“Sexually inoperative but incorrigibly flirtatious, he loved the high-born ladies, who loved him right back, although his paucity of physical response – a desert under the ocean of talk – led several of them to despair …”

Boswell, in his journal entry for 11 April 1773, describes a conversation with Mansfield (who would live another 20 years, dying at age 88):

“He is all artificial. He affected to know little of Scotch appeals when over. I catched him … [showing that] he well remembered what he affected not to remember. It is unpleasant to see so high an administrator of justice such a man.”