An Interview with Steven Pinker

Interview by Ryan Smith

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Dr. Pinker has been named as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals and his work has won numerous awards. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest volume, The Sense of Style, which is subtitled ‘The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.’

Dr. Pinker, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions regarding your new book, The Sense of Style, and perhaps also a question or two concerning your other books.

I’ve enjoyed your site, and am happy to chat with you.

IIevX5rRWhen I tell people that your new book is about writing in style, they typically remark that it was an obvious subject for you to tackle (since your own style is widely appreciated). But ideas that are blindingly obvious in hindsight are not always so obvious at the moment of their conception. How did you come upon the idea of writing a book about writing?

Like most of my book projects, it had been ricocheting in the back of my mind for many years, waiting for an occasion that would make me decide to do it as the next project. My previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, was on genocide, war, torture, rape, sadism, and domestic violence. So I decided I should next write a book on really controversial topics, like split infinitives and fused participles. Seriously, I like to alternate books on human nature with books on language. The immediate impetus to do the style manual that had long been on my mind was the clumsy copy-editing done on the manuscript for Better Angels – the copy-editor was clearly following a number of rules robotically, like switching every passive sentence into the active voice. It’s true that academics, politicians, and corporate hacks overuse the passive, but it’s not true that you can improve prose by eliminating the passive—in many contexts, the passive is the better choice. I decided that the world needed a style manual that explained the rationale behind rules of style, rather than just listing them, and that those rationales ultimately came from my fields of expertise, psycholinguistics and cognitive science.

Your writing style is generally acknowledged to be elegant, entertaining, and clear. I assume that you, like most other good writers, weren’t born with this ability. How has your own process been in learning to write well? Can you share a little of your ‘coming of age’ story when it comes to acquiring the sense of style? Also, is there anyone in particular – a book, teacher, or role model – whom you look back upon as having had a foundational impact on your writing style?

Starting in grad school, I began to consume style manuals, both to improve my writing and as a source of phenomena that were relevant to my interest in psycholinguistics. But as I say in the new book, most writers acquire their craft not by consulting style manuals but by reading a lot, and savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good writing. I was particularly influenced by two gifted prose stylists who were also brilliant pioneers in the psychology of language: George A. Miller, famous (among other things) for his “Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two” paper, and my advisor Roger Brown, who wrote Words and Things in 1957 and founded the modern study of child language acquisition.

Books on how to write well generally have a reputation for being tedious. The market is saturated with titles still in print, and a common criticism is that they are all cut from the same cloth. As a prospective reader, how can I expect The Sense of Style to be different from other style manuals?

pinker2The “thinking person’s guide” in the subtitle alludes to the fact that I explain the rationale behind my advice, rather than issuing edicts, so that readers have a way of judging why and when they should apply a particular guideline. Together with cognitive science and psycholinguistics, this requires a look at the study of usage, and here my experience as Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary is relevant. Most people assume that dictionaries are like the rules committee of Major League Baseball – the stipulators and arbitrators of correctness. In fact, dictionaries cultivate an ear for actual usage, particularly among careful writers, and craft their definitions and usage notes accordingly. My advice on traditional questions of correct usage – whether to end a sentence with a preposition, whether aggravate can be used to mean “annoy” as well as “intensify” – are based on data and historical evidence on how these forms are used by careful writers, not on my peeves and prejudices.

One thing I hear that a lot of college professors inculcate into their students these days is that “good writing is re-writing.” As a consequence, a lot of college graduates seem to be under the impression that the more they re-write, the better. But on the other hand, a common criticism of first-time academic authors is that their books are “overwritten” and that they seek to impress with posture rather than substance. What advice would you give to fledgling authors who have yet to find their own sense of style?

The advice is good. The “overwritten” quality of academese does not come from too many revisions. Quite the contrary – it’s surprisingly easy to write in turgid mush. It takes a lot of work and skill to write clearly and elegantly.

You have previously been active in the field of Evolutionary Psychology and that theoretical framework has either underpinned, or been the overt topic of, several of your books. Since you first wrote about the subject, there has been a deluge of writings on Evolutionary Psychology and it can be very hard for the non-specialist to separate the wheat from the chaff. How do you see the field of Evolutionary Psychology today versus, say, 12 years ago when you wrote The Blank Slate?

It’s matured tremendously, and has become an indispensable part of psychology today. This is not to say that every hypothesis is correct, just that psychologists are increasingly realizing that no psychological explanation is complete unless it says something on the phylogenetic and adaptive basis of a trait.

Lastly, I’m sure our readers would find it amusing if you could point out an error of style that I have committed in this interview.

I didn’t spot any errors, but then I don’t think that playing “Gotcha!” is the best way to encourage good writing – clarity and coherence are far more important than avoiding the occasional error of usage or diction.

Well, I guess in your own way you ‘got me’ there – Dr. Pinker, thank you for doing this interview and best of luck with your new book, The Sense of Style.

Many thanks for having me on the site.

***

Dr. Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style, is available via Amazon.

16 Comments

  1. Erik Winther Paisley says:

    The only thing I wonder is if good writing can be taught, rather than demonstrated or cultivated through careful feedback. The turgid messes he rightly mentions just as often perfect reflections of ideas that haven’t been fully fleshed out.

  2. Sarah G. says:

    Not just academic textbooks, but many business memos and contracts are written in a messy and oblique style. Eventually you start thinking that whoever wrote them just wanted to cover their behinds in case they made a mistake.

  3. aperture says:

    Oh, I was just wondering what to read next on Kindle and this sounds really interesting. In the past I’ve often wondered why the passive voice is frowned upon since it seems indispensable in some contexts and I’m gratified to find that Pinker agrees. ;) Thanks for this.

  4. Andy F says:

    Interesting interview! One thing which stood out to me was Dr. Pinker’s frequent use of the dash–something I use often myself. I was always told it should be used infrequently, but I didn’t listen.

    As a software developer, I’m also reading this thinking about how the ideas might apply to writing more readable software code.

  5. Kristian Witt Bergqvist says:

    A most interesting interview.

    I like the assessment that writing skill comes with practice. I remember in former days when the generel idea were that people came into the world with a predefined and fixed skillset. In that regard i can only also recommend the book “The talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, where Daniel adresses how experts and professionels build up talent and skills.

    I now have a new book to read (The Sense of Style), and as mentioned in the interview, it is especially the rationale behind why some styles are better than other in specifik situations, that is absent or deficient in many former works.

  6. Ventus413 says:

    Quite an interesting interview. Sounds like an intriguing book, one that most aspiring academic writers should read. I especially like Pinker’s comments on how The Sense of Style distinguishes itself from the other style manuals out there—a “thinking person’s guide” is exactly the kind of style manual I would like to read.

  7. Andreaz says:

    I’m happy to hear of The Sense of Style; I really enjoyed Words and Rules, and this new book sounds promising.
    Also glad to see someone stand up for the passive voice for once! ^^

  8. SamMM says:

    I know this goes beyond discussion of style, but I think it remains safely in the realm of good communication. I am interested in the extent to which scholars have an opportunity – or even responsibility – to communicate the ethical or societal implications of their research.

    This question frequently arises in climate science. Some have argued that climate scientists have been too muted in discussing the impacts of climate change, and have failed to communicate strongly for mitigating global climate change. Others have responded arguing that there’s no place in scientific research or scholarship for taking a stance on an issue, or for communicating the ethical side of their research; this would violate their objectivity. They say that is better left to the advocates and policymakers.

    To what extent does scholarly communication leave room for researchers to comment on the societal and normative implications of their work, and to what extent should they participate in that discussion?

  9. Ian says:

    what is his MBTI type?

  10. Nate says:

    @Ian, Steven P{inker’s MBTI type is ENTP. He’s listed here on the ENTP page. Go look it up.

  11. Raja says:

    Very cool interview! Steering towards simplicity is something that is understandably difficult, but immensely important in communicating a complex idea in way that can be understood by the average listener. Glad to hear Pinker is on board with the idea too!

  12. Jesse Gerroir says:

    Really interesting book. I think I may get a copy, I too am kind of tired of a lot of the older style manuals and this book sounds more practical than purely rules based.

  13. Rachel Wood says:

    I agree with Pinker on passive voice. In academic works, passive voice is perhaps the natural and most effective way of explaining what you mean. Then you could put brief passages of active description to bring to life the theory. In fiction, however, you really do need to learn how to write actively and show the reader rather than tell him what’s going on, or your book will not engage the reader and you will likely never get published in todays market -unless you’re writing literary fiction, and even then you really should use active voice often. One way of using passive voice well in fiction is in stories told using letters, journal entries, emails, etc. This works because people naturally write in the passive voice, and so it’s true to the form – also, the fact that letters give you so much insight into what the character was thinking when he wrote it, it kind of a “show” itself.

    Revision is not a process of adding more stuff, but in making the writing you’ve already done clearer and more entertaining (which usually means simplifying rather than complicating the prose). The problem of “overwriting” comes about by lack of cutting needless waste – the most important part of revision, after content-checking – rather than too much revision.

    My “writing rules” (lol) i have for myself regarding prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, are:

    1. Make sure your meaning is clear.
    2. Make your word choice simple yet strong – don’t use words that you or your audience wouldn’t use in everyday life discussing that topic, unless you’re writing a parody.
    3. Make it as brief as possible without making the meaning unclear.

    Follow those simple guidelines, and you’re on the right path. :)

    !

  14. Rachel Wood says:

    @SamMM

    Since when have scientists been mute about the implications of climate change? They’ve been raving about it for years! Pick up any scientific magazine, and the chances are there’ll be something about climate change in there.

    If anything, they are exaggerating the problem for effect. Climate change is a natural phenomenon that’s always happened, and will continue to do what it likes whatever we do. In the 70s the pattern suggested the Earth was getting cooler, and there was a big worry about a new ice age in the horizon.

    We simply don’t know enough about long term climatology, or human impact on it, to give ANY meaningful comments about its future beyond the next few years.

  15. Rachel Wood says:

    To clarify my last comment so it doesn’t get taken the wrong way, there is lots and lots of evidence to support the idea of climate change, but little to no evidence to support the idea of CLIMATE CHANGE (as seen in the headlines of newspapers).

  16. awesomeEllefant says:

    Mr Pinky, thank you for agreeing to this interview. My first question is…

    Why did you get your enormous butt kicked so bad in this Gender Diffences debate? :D

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9bTKRkmwtGY

    Spiltkey for the win!

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