30+ quotes from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

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

Steven Pinker ·  368 pages

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“Richard Feynman once wrote, “If you ever hear yourself saying, ‘I think I understand this,’ that means you don’t.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“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 good old days.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“It takes cognitive toil and literary dexterity to pare an argument to its essentials, narrate it in an orderly sequence, and illustrate it with analogies that are both familiar and accurate.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images,”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The best words not only pinpoint an idea better than any alternative but echo it in their sound and articulation, a phenomenon called phonesthetics, the feeling of sound.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Style still matters, for at least three reasons. First, it ensures that writers will get their message across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose. When the effort fails, the result can be calamitous-as Strunk and White put it, "death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram." Governments and corporations have found that small improvements in clarity can prevent vast amounts of error, frustration, and waste, and many countries have recently made clear language the law of the land.

Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily. Here is how one technology executive explains why he rejects job applications filled with errors of grammar and punctuation: "If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it's, then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with." And if that isn't enough to get you to brush up your prose, consider the discovery of the dating site OkCupid that sloppy grammar and spelling in a profile are "huge turn-offs." As one client said, "If you're trying to date a woman, I don't expect flowery Jane Austen prose. But aren't you trying to put your best foot forward?"

Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life's greatest pleasures. And as we shall see in the first chapter, this thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from “I think I understand” to “I understand,” we need to see the sights and feel the motions.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Unfortunately for cosmic justice, many gifted writers are scoundrels, and many inept ones are the salt of the earth.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“I think about how language works so I can best explain how language works.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“A writer, like a cinematographer, manipulates the viewer’s perspective on an ongoing story, with the verbal equivalent of camera angles and quick cuts.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The cognitive difference between believing that a proposition is true (which requires no work beyond understanding it) and believing that it is false (which requires adding and remembering a mental tag) has enormous implications for a writer. The most obvious is that a negative statement such as The king is not dead is harder on the reader than an affirmative one like The king is alive.20 Every negation requires mental homework, and when a sentence contains many of them the reader can be overwhelmed. Even worse, a sentence can have more negations than you think it does.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Third, don’t confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world. Just because something happened to you, or you read about it in the paper or on the Internet this morning, it doesn’t mean it is a trend. In a world of seven billion people, just about anything will happen to someone somewhere, and it’s the highly unusual events that will be selected for the news or passed along to friends. An event is a significant phenomenon only if it happens some appreciable number of times relative to the opportunities for it to occur, and it is a trend only if that proportion has been shown to change over time.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Gratuitous redundancy makes prose difficult not just because readers have to duplicate the effort of figuring something out, but because they naturally assume that when a writer says two things she means two things, and fruitlessly search for the nonexistent second point.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The American punctuation rule sticks in the craw of every computer scientist, logician, and linguist, because any ordering of typographical delimiters that fails to reflect the logical nesting of the content makes a shambles of their work.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Savoring good prose is not just a more effective way to develop a writerly ear than obeying a set of commandments; it’s a more inviting one.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“According to the English scholar Richard Lloyd-Jones, some of the clay tablets deciphered from ancient Sumerian include complaints about the deteriorating writing skills of the young.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. The advice in this and other stylebooks is not so much on how to write as on how to revise.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The problem with thoughtless signposting is that the reader has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to,”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Good writing takes advantage of a reader’s expectations of where to go next. It accompanies the reader on a journey, or arranges the material in a logical sequence (general to specific, big to small, early to late), or tells a story with a narrative arc.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“Journalists assigned to an issue often cover the coverage, creating the notorious media echo chamber.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“The teachers introduced a program that explicitly trained the students to construct coherent arguments, with a focus on the connections between successive ideas. It was a radical shift from the kind of assignment that dominates high school writing instruction today, in which students are asked to write memoirs and personal reflections. The students showed dramatic improvements in their test scores in several subjects, and many more of them graduated from high school and applied to college. It’s no coincidence that”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


“the optimal number of connectives depends on the expertise of the reader.14 Readers who are familiar with the subject matter will already know a lot about what is similar to what else, what causes what else, and what tends to accompany what else, and they don’t need to have these connections spelled out in so many words. They may even get confused if the writer spells out the obvious ones:”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century


About the author

Steven Pinker
Born place: in Montreal, Canada
Born date September 18, 1954
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