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What makes writing stylish?
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!