Good reading about good writing

BY Julian Gorham

Ever read Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style’, the ‘Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century’? I recommend it every bit as much as I quote it directly in this blog.

It’s for anyone who puts a premium on clarity and coherence, two principles that should sit at the heart of the business of communications and so often don’t.

‘The Sense of Style’, according to the author, is designed for people who know how to write and want to write better. Its main subject is the aspect of writing that evokes the most emotion – correct and incorrect usage. But, Brand Police, Style Police, Whatever You Call Yourselves, it is not a guideline or style manual. Many of these treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as unerring laws chiselled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation.

Pinker’s point is that language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn. He says that as people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline – the illusion of the ‘the good old days.’ And so every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilisation down with it.

Pinker cites examples from history showing that moral panic about the decline of writing may be as old as writing itself:

From 1978 – The common language is disappearing. It is slowly being crushed to death under the weight of the verbal conglomerate, a pseudospeech at once both pretentious and feeble, that is created daily by millions of blunders and inaccuracies in grammar, syntax, idiom, metaphor, logic, and common sense. In the history of modern English there is no period in which such victory over thought-in-speech has been so widespread.

From 1961 – Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.

From 1917 – From every college in the country goes up the cry, “Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.” Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.

From 1889 – The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.

From 1833 – Unless the present progress of change (is) arrested… there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman.

From 1785 – Our language (I mean the English) is degenerating very fast…. I begin to fear that it will be impossible to check it.

Complaints about the decline of language go at least as far back as the invention of the printing press. Soon after William Caxton set up the first one in England in 1478, he lamented, “And certaynly our language now vsed veryeth ferre from what whiche was vsed and spoken when I was borne.”

Does anyone actually care about style in English, Pinker asks, with the rise of the Internet and its texting and tweeting, its email and chatrooms? Surely the craft of written expression has declined since the days before smartphones and the Web? The author is positive, saying that, in fact, just a little surfing will show that many Internet users value language that is clear, grammatical and competently spelled and punctuated, not just in printed books and legacy media but in e-zines, blogs, Wikipedia entries, consumer reviews and even a fair proportion of email.

He happily reports that members of the Internet generation are writing more than ever and not always using smileys and instant-messaging abbreviations. Like all language users, they fit their phrasing to the setting and audience and have a good sense of what is appropriate in formal writing.

‘The Sense of Style’ really does make good sense.