I somehow made it through four years of High School English, Freshman Composition, Shakespeare, and Comparative Literature without being exposed to traditional grammatical terms. I can usually identify nouns, verbs, and adjectives but would have trouble identifying adverbial phrases, case markers, and the various kinds of verb tenses. I suspect, as Steven Pinker says, that I “pick up the nuances of words by focusing on their makeup and their contexts over the course of tens of thousands of hours of reading.” Over the years I have read many style guides, particularly those written by actual writers—like Stephen King and Lawrence Block. I also kept the Chicago Manual of Style handy on my bookshelf, although lately I tend to use on-line resources like the Purdue OWL. So when The Sense of Style came out, I immediately put it on my to-read list.
I love the Oxford comma, singular they, and have no problem starting a sentence with a conjunction. Likewise, ending a sentence with a preposition and splitting infinitives seems perfectly natural to me. It turns out that Pinker agrees with me that these elements of my style are perfectly fine. But he goes further than just validating my stylistic choices and explains why they are perfectly reasonable. He also provides a framework for understanding why some sentences work and some do not. Most of the book is easy to follow if you have an interest in writing well, but he does use grammatical terms—generative, nominative, supplement, adjunct—that I was not familiar with and needed to look up. He explains many of the terms in the text and provides a glossary of terms for others, but he does presuppose a level of grammatical knowledge that the casual reader does not necessarily possess. I still have trouble remembering some of the terms and need to refresh my memory when encountering them later in the book. That’s why, now that I’ve read the book, I am revisiting and carefully studying parts of it. I’m sure that the effort will improve my writing, but require a bit of work on my part to fully incorporate.
The grammatical concept that seems most useful for writing understandable prose is the tree metaphor. The tree metaphor is useful for understanding complicated sentence structures and is especially useful for matching verb tenses with the subject. Since most of my writing is expository, it was interesting to learn that I write in the classic style. And for the most part I follow left-to-right ordering which means that readers can process the sentence without having to jump back and forth in the sentence to decipher the point.
A large part of the book deals with linguistic theory and about a third of the book, Chapter 6: Telling Right From Wrong, deals with specific rules of grammar, word choice, and punctuation. So even if you are not interested in learning why good writing is good, you can use the book as a reference.
As I said earlier, I just started studying parts of the book. I’ll update this post with my thoughts on specific ideas in the book as I run across them. But for now I will comment on one thing that was a bit off-putting on the first read. I am a long-time user of singular they. In my experience, readers don’t even notice that I am doing it. Even the authors of my manuals, who object strenuously to it, don’t notice that I have changed their pronouns to they. And that’s the biggest reason that I use it. Alternatives like he/she, he or she, and ze interrupt the flow of the sentence and distract from the concepts that you are trying to get across. Which is why it is puzzling to me that Pinker, who supports the use of singular they, switches back and forth between he and she. In each chapter the generic writer is of one sex and the generic reader is of the other. Then in the next chapter it is the reverse. If you are familiar with the linguistics literature it may seem natural but it was confusing to me.