STEVEN PINKER casts his latest monograph, The Sense of Style, as “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century.” But, in fact, he sets out to answer an ancient question: Can there be a science of persuasion? Stylistic eloquence doesn’t readily lend itself to systematic study; still less can it be taught. Indeed, Pinker admits that when he asked accomplished writers what style manuals they consulted in their training, most answered, “none.” There’s an intuitive, quasi-magical quality to the whole undertaking of effective expression. Even writers, who can find the right words to explain so many things, struggle to explain this. Writing well just “comes” to them. As the classicist Hugh Lawson-Tancred observes, it seems to be a gift, “dispensed among mortals with capricious favoritism, whose results can only otherwise be achieved by fluke and good fortune.”
Pinker wants to show that there is a science of superior prose — but that the laws that govern it aren’t the ones we thought they were. His style guide eschews the traditional focus on the rules of grammar and usage in favor of understanding the psychological roots of good writing: the cognitive and imaginative functions the writer must perform to reach the reader effectively. Such scientific explanation of what works and what doesn’t is more compelling, he claims, in an age that demands reasons and proofs. It’s also easier to absorb and remember than the arbitrary-seeming, old school commandments, the prescriptive lists of dos and don’ts.
To this extent, The Sense of Style represents an evolution of the writing manual genre, building on old favorites like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Pinker doffs his hat to his 19th- and 20th-century predecessors, but the text to which he seems most indebted goes unmentioned: Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric — not just the first study of literary style as a universal vehicle for thought, but also the first study of style’s psychological underpinnings.