Pinker takes a chunk out of Strunk

I am enjoying Steven Pinker’s new tome on writing, in which he sets out an approach to writing style for the twenty-first century. He makes short work of the famous complaint tradition in language, particularly English, in which self-appointed guardians of all that is good rail against those – usually younger than themselves – who dare to change words and the way words are used. Worse still, they eschew proper punctuation!

A series of quotes, dating all the way back to William Caxton in the fifteenth century, shows the unchanging nature of the complaints about change made by those who seek to hold back that change, which Pinker delightfully describes as “the graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens.” Reading Pinker is a joy not just for his sense about style, but for his sense of style.

However, his comments on Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style shocked me into realising that I had, in the past, erroneously relied on their inerrancy. Strunk, and his pupil and popularizer White, mistook examples of the passive voice – including using the passive to warn against its use – and misdefined basic grammatical terms. “Worse,” proclaims Pinker, “they justified their peeves with cockamamie rationalizations.”

At this point I was reaching for the Knockando to calm my nerves. Could the author of phrases as compelling as “omit needless words” be guilty of anything ‘cockamamie’? Could (gasp) concision itself be cockamamie?

I am only slightly comforted by having a new phrase to sneak into speeches, lectures, and media briefings at every opportunity. It is, of course, ‘the inerrancy of concision’. Truly, you can never use too few words to make your meaning clear. At least I can wholeheartedly endorse Pinker’s view that the good use of style is primarily about “sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose.”

I know exactly what he means.

E.B. White

Strunk’s student E.B. White, and hound

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