For Steven Pinker, as a cognitive scientist, style is ‘the effective use of words to engage the human mind’. But in the last hundred pages of his frustratingly mixed-up book, he decides on questions of usage (whether ‘data’ is a plural; the placing of apostrophes). To teach a fine style is no easy matter in a book; Pinker leans, he says, to a ‘classic style’. To discuss house style or usage is fun but bitty. You’d hardly turn to Pinker’s discussion of just a hundred ‘of the more common issues of grammar’ for guidance, but rather to a fat manual, such as Robert Burchfield’s edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
On the usage front, Pinker flogs a straw man in declaring, ‘A manual for the new millennium cannot just perpetuate the diktats of earlier manuals. Today’s writers are infused by the spirit of scientific skepticism and the ethos of questioning