The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker; The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H McWhorter - review by Christopher Howse

Christopher Howse

Words to the Wise

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

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Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 359pp £20 order from our bookshop

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

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Oxford University Press 182pp £12.99 order from our bookshop
 

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 authority. They should not be satisfied with “That’s the way

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