09 June 2014

Pinker on style

On 9 June, Edge columnist John Brockman published a Conversation with Steven Pinker, author of
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century under the heading Writing In The 21st Century. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Some quotes (my bold):

The question I'm currently asking myself is how our scientific understanding of language can be put into practice to improve the way that we communicate anything, including science?
In particular, can you use linguistics, cognitive science, and psycholinguistics to come up with a better style manual—a 21st century alternative to the classic guides like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style?
The problem with any given construction, like the passive voice, isn't that people use it, but that they use it too much or in the wrong circumstances.

Ironically, the aspect of writing that gets the most attention is the one that is least important to good style, and that is the rules of correct usage.
The first thing you should think about is the stance that you as a writer take when putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Writers and translators also use the term 'voice' in this context.
A lot of Strunk and White's advice depended completely on their gut reactions from a lifetime of practice as an English professor and critic, respectively. Today we can offer deeper advice, such as the syntactic and discourse functions of the passive voice—a construction which, by the way, Strunk & White couldn't even consistently identify, not having being trained in grammar.
Many people get incensed about so-called errors of grammar which are perfectly unexceptionable.

Another bit of psychology that can make anyone a better writer is to be aware of a phenomenon sometimes called The Curse of Knowledge. It goes by many names, and many psychologists have rediscovered versions of it, including defective Theory of Mind, egocentrism, hindsight bias, and false consensus. They're all versions of an infirmity afflicting every member of our species, namely that it's hard to imagine what it's like not to know something that you do know

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