Steve Pinker’s Prose Guide

Our friend the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker has written a manual on prose style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, as he calls it. It’s a mostly admiring counter to The Elements of Style, the immortal guide (“omit needless words”) compiled by E. B. White from the wisdom of his mentor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr. Not the least of the differences is that Steve Pinker’s brain science lets you feel he’s personally acquainted with the neurons that assemble language in our heads. Steve is the rare scientist who writes uncommonly well, in the company of people he admires like the physicist Brian Greene and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins – none better than the great Darwin himself, who ended The Origin of Species with his unforgettable sentence: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

We asked Steve to bring along some samples of his favorite lines and paragraphs and we tried out some of ours on him, too. It became a game of trading passages – from William James to Edna O’Brien, Vladimir Nabokov to Roger Angell. It sounded a bit like a trial run of a stage act for grammar nerds, and we invite you to play along. Steve can one up anybody, and he can identify the trope or the trick that makes a piece work – or not. Readers and listeners: fire away, please!

Related Content

  • Glad to hear you read from Roger Angell – just now reading: Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion
    He is such a gifted writer.

  • Potter

    Style can be everything for me but it’s style that expresses something much deeper from the writer. If it’s descriptive, and beautifully so, and often more likely about nature, it’s an immediate connection. This ability is so important, to pull a reader along or in. I find that with Chekhov. My first infatuation with a writer was ( and is) the French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. I would have to do a lot of typing to give you better examples but here are two by Colette I found online

    “It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses. ”

    From The Vagabond:
    “To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper, at such frantic speed that sometimes one’s hand struggles and rebels, overdriven by the impatient god which guides it – and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that bloomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.”

    As you have shown in your excerpts and examples it is style that moves a reader (or this reader) through even in translation, so it’s not only about choice of words and their aesthetic combinations and the images evoked ( and it certainly is about that) but something else deeper pushing it. That is what I was hearing in this conversation.

  • Though I was quite pleased that David Foster Wallace entered into the conversation, I was saddened to hear one of the least poetic, least moving, least human passages chosen for this discussion on prose and style. Though Wallace humorously details S.N.O.O.T.S., his essay entitled Authority and American Usage: or, ‘Politics and the English Language’ is Redundant’ discusses a more complex relation between language and power/agency/purpose than could be conveyed with the short quote read (out of context) by Lydon and commented upon quite out of context by Pinker.

    So as a means to illuminate Wallace’s own style, please consider the following:

    “The Account Representative bent back to the involved removal of his security clamped helmet. He was preparing to feel that male and special feeling associated with the conversational imperative faced by any two men with some professional connection who meet in nighttime across an otherwise empty and silent but fragilely silent underground space far below the tall and vaguely pulsing site of a long and weary day for both: the obligation of conversation without the conversational prerequisites of intimacy or interests or concerns to share. They shared pain, though of course neither knew” (“Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR 48).


    “You should have seen, on the grounds’ outside courts, the variegated ballet that was this year’s Junior Wimbledon. Drop volleys and mixed spin, off-speed serves, gambits planned three shots ahead – all as well as the standing-issue grunts and booming balls. Whether anything like a nascent Federer was here among these juniors can’t be known, of course. Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform – and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled” (“Federer Both Flesh and Not” from the collection of essays titled Both Flesh and Not pg 33).


    “Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship [power, intellect, your body/beauty, etc.] is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” (This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life 112-123)

    • Conor

      Yes, these are far more stylish selections than mine! I chose the snoot excerpt really just to introduce the idea. (Pinker is mentioned more than once in the American Usage essay as MIT’s resident descriptivist.) Also the Billy Zane reference cracks me up.

      • I suppose I stepped in to defend Wallace because his essay was much more complicated and expansive than was explained by this quote and/or the less than two minutes spent on it by Lydon and Pinker. And they gave no thought to Wallace’s style nor to the humor he exhibited by making light of his family’s acronym. Just wanted to provide a better context for the Wallace/his quote. Set the record straight(er), so to speak.