06 April 2015

Snippets from Pinker on style, Ch2

More snippets from Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

p28: The key to good style ... is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you're pretending to communicate.

To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I have borrowed a convention from linguistics and will consistently refer to a generic writer of one sex and a generic reader of the other. The male gender won the coin toss and will represent the writer in this capter; the role will alternate in subsequent ones.

pp29-30: classic style, practical style, plain style, postmodern styles defined and discussed.

p35: ... the ideal of classic prose is congenial to the worldview of the scientist.

p36: Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.

p38: ... metadiscourse -- verbiage about verbiage, such as subsection, review and discussion.

Clumsy writers ... unthinkingly follow the advice to say what you're going to say, say it, then say what you've said. The advice comes from classical rhetoric, and it makes sense for long orations. ... It's not as necessary in writing, where a reader can backtrack and look up what she's missed.

p41: ... researchers are apt to lose sight of whom they are writing for.

Museum signs explain how the shard in the showcase fits into a classification of pottery styles rather than who made it and what it was used for.

Governments and corporations organize their websites around their bureaucratic structure rather than the kinds of information a user seeks.

p42: Another bad habit of self-conscious writers is the prissy use of quotation marks -- sometimes called shudder quotes or scare quotes -- to distance the writer from a common idiom.

p43: And then there's compulsive hedging. Many writer cushion their prose with wad of fluff that imply that they are not willing to stand behind what they are saying ...

p45: ... hedging is a choice, not a tic.

Paradoxically, intensifiers like very, highly and extremely also work like hedges. ... The reason is that unmodified adjectives and nouns tend to be interpreted categorically ...

p49: Could you recognize a "level" or a "perspective" if your met one on the street?

p50: These are metaconcepts, concepts about concepts. They serve as a kind of packing material in which academics, bureaucrats and coroporate mouthpieces clad their subject matter.

Together with verbal coffins like model and level in which writers entomb their actors and actions, the English language provides them with a dangerous weapon called nominalization ...
... zombie nouns because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.

p55: ... the passive allow the writer to direct the reader's gaze, like a cinematographer choosing the best camera angle.
Often a writer needs to steer the reader's attention away from the agent of the action.

p56: ... the guiding metaphor of classic style: a writer in conversation with a reader, directs the reader's gaze to something in the world.

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Full circle

After completing a BSc in physics and maths in Australia and extended travels in Africa I found a job in Paris that left me with considerab...