Does thinking about grammar rules make your eyes glaze over? Here’s a book to unglazed those eyes: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker.
Despite having a formal education in English literature from a fine academic institution, grammar terminology gives me the creeps. Pluperfect, prepositional objects, predictive nominative … ack!
It’s like the saying about art: I know good grammar when I hear it, but defining it is another thing altogether.
So encountering The Sense of Style was an unexpected delight. As a psychologist as well as writer and linguist, Pinker approaches tone, style, and grammar as issues of human connection and understanding.
Pinker describes the “writerly ear,” which is developed by reverse-engineering good prose. Then he offers the best explanations of grammar that I have ever encountered. You don’t have to rely on your ear alone.
The book applies a cognitive science slant to the subject. For example, our brains handle large amounts of information by packaging it into “chunks.” Complex sentences with multiple clauses take advantage of this chunking; the writer must help the reader juggle these chunks. Effective writing works with the reader’s brain to aid comprehension.
Good grammar is an act of empathy.
I also love the chapter on the Curse of Knowledge, or the difficulty of taking the perspective of those who don’t have the same perspective and understanding you have. Says Pinker, “The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.” We cannot get out of our own heads to understand the perspective of others.
If you’re serious about writing, read The Sense of Style for its explanation the classic style, for insight into the cognitive processes behind grammar, and for terrific explanations of common problems and issues. The book deserves a spot on your bookshelf.