24 August 2014

Skapinker on Pinker on style

On 22 August 2014, Financial Times language columnist Michael Skapinker reviewed Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style under the subheading A writing guide that attacks the purists.
The full title of Pinker's book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

First, a critique of Pinker's own style:
When we are speaking, says Pinker, we can see if we are getting our words across by monitoring people’s faces, eyes and posture, whereas “we enjoy none of this give-and-take when we cast our bread upon the waters by sending a written missive out into the world”. Strunk and White’s book has its imperfections, but its instruction “omit needless words” holds good. “We enjoy none of this give-and-take when we write” would have been fine. There was no need for missive-sending and bread-casting.“Cast thy bread upon the waters” is from Ecclesiastes. So is “of making many books there is no end”. I was starting to think we didn’t need another one about style.
The following passages are noteworthy (my bold):
... the “curse of knowledge”. The curse was invented by economists, Pinker says, to explain why people don’t bargain as well as they should when they have information the other party does not.
Similarly, when writing, we often don’t realise how much more we know about our subject than the people we are writing for. ... More: we don’t realise how much of what we know we have reduced to distinctive phrases and short-cuts – what the linguists call “chunking”.
This is illuminating. It helps explain why business leaders cannot stop writing impenetrable jargon no matter how often it is pointed out to them. Some allege it is because they are trying to bury the reality of what they are saying, particularly when it is bad news, such as job losses. But much of it is because they cannot see what they are familiar with and their readers are not. “They are not trying to bamboozle us; that’s just the way they think.”
The last paragraph also applies to engineers and others -- and sometimes even to technical journalists -- even allowing for the fact that they are writing specifically (and almost exclusively) for a well-defined technical readership.

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