06 April 2015

Snippets from Pinker on style, Ch3

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

p57: The curse of knowledge

The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it's like for someone else not to know something that you know.


p59: Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

p61: The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.
p63: How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice -- always remember the reader over your shoulder -- is not as effective as you might think.

p64: Shorthand terms are unobjectionable, indeed indispensable, when a term has become entrenched in the community one is writing for.
... But the curse of knowledge ensures that most writers will overestimate how standard a term has become and how wide the community is that has learned it.

p65: And when technical terms are unavoidable, why not choose ones that are easy for readers to understand and remember? Ironically, the field of linguistics is among the worst offenders ...

p66: ... the two meanings of some ... "some, but not all" ... and "at least one" ... the "only" and "at-least" senses ...

p68: Chunking ... the lifeblood of higher intelligence.

p69: The amount of abstraction that a writer can get away with depends on the expertise of her readership.

p71: Now, if you combine functional fixity with chunking, and stir in the curse that hides each one from our awareness, you get an explanation of why specialists use so much idiosyncratic terminology, together with abstractions, metaconcepts and zombie nouns. They are not trying to bamboozle us; that's just the way they think.

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