30 April 2015

Snippets from Pinker on sequences

Snippets from Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century on arcs of coherence involving sequences.
p165 (my bold): Though English cleanly distinguishes the order in which things happened in the world from the order in which they are mentioned in a text, English speakers tend to be more concrete, and naturally assume that the order in which events are mentioned is the order in which they took place ...

All things being equal, it's good for a writer to work with the ongoing newsreel in readers' minds and describe events in chronological order.

If the spotlight of attention has been lingering on a later event, ... the imperative to mention given before new trumps the imperative to mention early before late.

p166: A coherent text is one in which the reader always knows which coherence relation holds between one sentence and the next.

p167: As a writer bangs out sentences, she needs to ensure that the readers can reconstruct the coherence relations she has in mind.
... writers can ... leave connectives ... outwhen the connection is obvious to the reader.
Too many connectives can make it seem as if an author isbelaboring the obvious or patronizing the reader ...
Too few connectives, on the other hand, can leave the reader puzzled as to how one statement follows from the last.
Even more challenging, the optimal number of connectives depends on the expertise of the reader.

pp167-8: Figuring out the right level of explicitness for coherence relations is a major reason that a writer needs to think hard about the state of knowledge of her readers and show a few of them a draft to see whether she got it right.

p168: Humans are cursed with attributing too much of their own knowledge to others ... which means that overall there is a greater danger of prose being confusing because it has too few connectives than pedantic because it has too many. When in doubt, connect

p169: Coherence connectives are the unsung heroes of lucid prose.
... they are the cement of reasoning and one of the most difficult yet most important tools of writing to master.

Thought the claim that good prose leads to goos thinking is not always true (brilliant thinkers can be clumsy writers, and slick writers can be glib thinkers), it may be true when it comes to the mastery of coherence.

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