Substance Underlies The Sense of Style


In 2002 Steven Pinker spoke to a packed house at Kane Hall on the UW campus. He was on a nationwide book tour to promote his book The Blank Slate. I had just read a review of the book and its author and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I was not disappointed. Pinker, who is on the faculty at Harvard, is a rock star in the academic world and variously described as an experimental psychologist, an evolutionary psychologist, a cognitive scientist, and a linguist depending on his subject matter or the speaker’s point of view.

His earlier books, The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and Words and Rules were all well reviewed and highly readable even though they deal with complex ideas in cognitive science and behavioral genetics.

In The Blank Slate he explored theories of human nature and natural selection and challenged the bias and denial of various intellectuals also looking at those subjects. His focus was on three dogmas, (1) the Blank Slate – the mind has no innate traits, (2) the Noble Savage – people are born good and corrupted by society, (3) the Ghost in the Machine – each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology. Over simplified, the book is an updated evidence based investigation of the nature (genetic inheritance) vs. nurture (the influence of environment) debate. Pinker believes that many intellectuals are afraid to accept scientific findings that challenge their views because they believe that if science proves them wrong it may also upset the moral and social order underpinning society.

In his latest book, The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he returns to language as his subject and looks at the way we write contemporary prose. It is essentially an updated usage guide, but an entertaining one. He reviews the history of style guides, particularly William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, and Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage and finds them outdated. Curiously missing is any mention of The Chicago Manual of Style published by the University of Chicago and well established as the most comprehensive guide to style, grammar, word choice, and usage in publishing and newsrooms.

Pinker sign

In The Sense of Style Pinker is, as always, smart, clever, funny, hip, and relentlessly detailed while still being readable. Whereas Strunk and White cover the elements of style in 85 pages, Pinker gives us 355 pages. He is never harsh and always respectful in his criticism; he simply says that over time literary preferences and usages have changed. Needless to say the new book is comprehensive. In addition to his precise and elegant prose the book is peppered with examples drawn from Shakespeare, Dickens, Alexander Haig, James Brown and the Rolling Stones. Pinker is a rock star in a world that generally produces drudges and scolds. There is more Bob Dylan than Noam Chomsky here, and that’s a good thing.

This is the last of the 30/30 blog posts. The Richard Hugo House project is now complete and my commitment to write for 30 minutes a day for 30 days is fulfilled and now I can go back to my other writing projects. I’ve enjoyed it and learned some things about writing with a deadline.

More soon here… but maybe not tomorrow.


  1. Then there’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” – which I haven’t read but hope his thesis (we are less violence-prone as a species nowadays) is true. As a biologist I was motivated to read “The Blank Slate” and as an undergrad English major I was led to “Words and Rules.” The latter was a revelation. Pinker is an amazing polymath and your summation of his many skills (and hats worn) is spot on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *