"The Sense of Style" that Makes Language Work

Sep 23, 2015

Steven Pinker has studied language and the mind for more than two decades. Now, he's written The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Though he's added another book to the pantheon of writing guides and rule books out there, he's the last to say that a reference text is in charge of what is and isn't allowed in writing.

"Contrary to what a lot of people believe, dictionaries don't consist of a bunch of lawmakers who decide what is correct or incorrect. It's not like the rules committee of Major League Baseball, where if they say it's a rule, then it is a rule. Rather, dictionary editors actually cultivate an ear for the way the language is used. When the language changes, the dictionaries reflect that." 

Pinker's book draws on his years of research, but he also worked in some of his personal pet peeves, when the majority of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary agreed with him.

"We all know the kind of writer who says, 'We had to get the ball rolling in our search for the holy grail, but it wasn't a slam dunk or a magic bullet, so we rolled with the punches and let the chips fall where they may while seeing the glass as half-full.' Cliches are a sign of careless writing."

In this Talk of Iowa interview, host Charity Nebbe talks with Pinker about his book.