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Study Up for ‘Think’: A Guide to Good Writing

Rebecca Goldstein

Steven Pinker tells new ways to wield the pen - or keyboard - in his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.  Pinker joins Think today at noon to speak with Krys Boyd about crafting clear, compelling, and elegant prose.

Pinker is currently the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.  He is an experimental psychologist and is known for his writings on language, mind, and human nature.  In The Sense of Style, Pinker discusses what good writing entails and provides a 21st century, updated guide.  He practices the rules and ideas that he writes about in his books to create a simple, practical, and coherent page-turner.

In a review by Paula Byrne, from The Times, Pinker is said to know “that simplicity is more difficult to perfect than abstruse convolution. It helps enormously that he [Pinker] is such a beautiful stylist himself. Many of his sentences give great pleasure and he is never lofty or pleased with himself.”

There have been many style guides for writing before Pinker.  In America, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, and later revised by EB White, is the most influential book of this kind.  Overseas, in Britain, Henry Watson Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has held a special reverence in the field of writing.  Pinker has maintained that he cannot replace Strunk and White, or even Fowler; however, he does want to improve and update these widely accepted manuals for writing.

In August, Pinker wrote an article for The Guardian, where he outlined ten different grammar rules and explained why it was okay to sometimes break them.  The grammar rules he addressed in this article include, but are not limited to, dangling modifiers, prepositions at the end of a sentence, and split infinitives.

In his book, Pinker uses his deep knowledge of linguistics to provide a scientific basis for his writing principles.  He uses examples of good and bad writing to show how the art of prose can be a form of pleasurable mastery as well as a fascinating intellectual topic.

Listen to 'Think' at noon and 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday on KERA 90.1 FM or listen live online.