Steve Pinker’s new book

As you may know, Steve Pinker has a new book coming out, hard on the heels of his 800-page behemoth, The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Had I written that, it would take me several years to recover, but the man is a machine.

His new book is a popular tract on how to write well: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (368 pages). It won’t be out until Sept 30, but you can preorder the hardcover or Kindle version now.

Here’s the Amazon blurb:

Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care?

In The Sense of Style, the bestselling linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker answers these questions and more. Rethinking the usage guide for the twenty-first century, Pinker doesn’t carp about the decline of language or recycle pet peeves from the rulebooks of a century ago. Instead, he applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose.

In this short, cheerful, and eminently practical book, Pinker shows how writing depends on imagination, empathy, coherence, grammatical knowhow, and an ability to savor and reverse engineer the good prose of others. He replaces dogma about usage with reason and evidence, allowing writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, rather than robotically, being mindful of what they are designed to accomplish.

Filled with examples of great and gruesome prose, Pinker shows us how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right.

Steve told me that it’s sort of an updated Strunk and White, but more discursive and less prescriptive. I, for one, am really looking forward to it (I’d get the Kindle version, but I’m simply unable to read electronic print).

The CBC has the first piece about it that I’ve seen: “Why politicians and academics don’t just say what they mean.” The first half is the author’s  (Neil Macdonald) critique of obscurantist writing, and the second part gives some quotes from Steve about his book. From the piece (quotes are, of course, in quotation marks):

“Most academics … effortlessly dispense sludge,” writes Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist and writer.

. . . He argues that while many scholars do groundbreaking work, and have important ideas, “their writing stinks.”

“There’s just a lot of bad writing out there,” he told me, and that has its consequences: “We pay for universities, we ought to be able to understand what comes out of them.”

. . . Pinker’s book — he provided me with an advance peek when I called to talk to him about the subject — is neither a style guide, nor another rant about the need for fewer dangling participles and split infinitives.

In fact, he regards many English grammar rules as classist anachronisms originally designed in 18th-century Britain.

Instead, his is an argument for simplicity: “assumption of equality between writer and reader makes the reader feel like a genius,” he writes. “Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”

. . . In this book, he shines a pitiless light on our love of words like “framework,” “process,” and “model.” (I could easily add another 20 or 30).

These, he says, are meta-concepts, or “concepts about concepts.” He compares them to the layers of packaging material a customer has to hack through to get at the product.

And of course there’s our over-hedging — the use of qualifiers like “apparently,” “evidently,” “rather,” “comparatively” and “presumably.”

Editors call that journalistic caution. Pinker calls it “wads of fluff that imply [writers] are not willing to stand behind what they are saying.

What really hurts, though, is his diagnosis of such writing: “In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Ironically, he says, “it’s often the brightest and best-informed who suffer the most from it.”

The “hedging” stung a bit, for I’m occasionally guilty of that.  It certainly comes from the hedging that’s absolutely necessary in writing scientific papers. When there are alternative explanations for your results, as there nearly always are, or you feel a need to emphasize that your results are provisional (“more work is needed” is the trite ending of many papers), words like “apparently” and “presumably” automatically come to mind.  And I think that sometimes they are needed in popular works, too, for if you’re proposing a provisional conclusion, it may be appropriate to hedge it a bit. That doesn’t mean that you don’t stand behind it.

But perhaps I’m overly sensitive about this.  I’m certain that my own writing skills will improve after I digest this book.

Screen shot 2014-06-06 at 9.57.53 AM

Steve, can you take a break now so the rest of us don’t feel so inferior?

h/t: Veronica

92 Comments

  1. Latverian Diplomat
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    “I’m simply unable to read electronic print”

    Have you tried a Kindle Paperwhite? That’s the first ebook I was comfortable reading from.

    • mattpenfold
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      I have a tablet with a retina quality display (although it is not an iPad)and find that good to use as an e-book. Probably not surprising, given who it was made by.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        I’m sure it’s quite nice, but one advantage of a display designed for black and white is that the blacks are very dark (a problem for any color display, and especially a backlit one.

        So the constrast is awesome. Also the display uses eink, so it only draws each page once, instead of 60 times per second, so battery life is measured in days instead of hours.

        Lastly, the weight is really light (less need for batteries and HW).

        Sorry to sound like a commercial, but it’s my favorite current example of how a device designed for a very specific purpose can trounce a general purpose device in that specific arena.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      I noticed that too – quite a handicap in these ages. But also, looking from the other end of the telescope, a marketing opportunity. If there are people who still have problems like this, then there is a market for display devices that they can use, comfortably. As well as the rest of the form factor and usability issues with any such device.
      I must admit to preferring ink-on-paper. But the wife got me a Kindle a couple of years ago, and I have read quite a lot on it. I doubt that I’d bother to buy any Kindle “editions” of anything though for another several generations of the product. Not so much out of objection to the format, but because I’ve got a lot of books-in-text and papers in PDF to read before I feel the need to step into buying e-books. And even then, if it’s a book I’m reading for enjoyment, I’m probably going to want one that is bath/ sauna/ bothy compatible, which means ink-on-paper (with bundled e-book perhaps – but I’ve never seen that offered).
      The increasing prevalence of colour figures in (technical) PDFs is likely to be what pushes me to replace the Kindle. And come to think of it, that’ll probably mean that it’s replacement is likely to be a tablet. Ever-moving goalposts that they are!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        I go back and forth. I read in bed for two reasons: my neck is messed and it hurts to read in any other way & I often fall asleep reading. An electronic device (I mostly use my Nexus 7 as an e-reader & I had one of the first Sonys) is easier to hold (my hands have strain injuries from holding heavy tablets, texting – all the geek injuries there are) & I can highlight & had notes easily which I often reference later.

        I also like regular books too for their substantial feel and smell and I typically have electronic AND meat world versions of books I really like.

      • Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        It’d be great if publishers did allow bundling e-books with print copies.

        Amazon offers some music CDs with “Auto-Rip”, mp3 downloads of the same music (which is sometimes cheaper than buying just the downloads!). So there’s no technical reason and no obvious commercial one why books couldn’t be treated in the same way.

        /@

        • Harrison
          Posted June 6, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          I’m not up on the details of Amazon’s scuffle with e-book publishers, but I would imagine print publishers would like to stay out it.

          Looking at a tangential issue, Amazon runs Audible and they have a function on some of their newer Kindles where if you buy both the audio version and the Kindle version you can sync them up so that you can for example commute listening to audio and when you get to your destination you can switch to the same place in your ebook automatically. Or do both at once if you like. But the problem of course is that this means you have to buy a book twice, and neither version is the kind you can park on your shelf.

    • Marella
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      There are significant advantages to paper books but they take up space and I just don’t have unlimited funds for bookshelves, also I need to have room in my house for other things than books. I have made a vow not to buy anything not electronic unless there is a really compelling reason. I have a Kindle Paperwhite but these days I mostly read from my iPad Air, you can adjust the screen brightness so it’s always comfortable. I have no trouble reading either of them but the iPad also has my email and a bunch of other things.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 9, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        also I need to have room in my house for other things than books

        I understand the words … but the over all concept just sort of slips away.

        • Marella
          Posted June 9, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          LOL. It is a tricky one for the neophyte, this is true.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 5:34 am | Permalink

      You cannot browse in an e-book, or flick through & dip in in the same way that you can with a real book.

      Is a book the object or the collection of words?

  2. µ
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Caution (“hedging”) seems essential to science; scientists know there is always a chance that they can be wrong, that there may be an overlooked alternative hypothesis or interpretation.

    So I apparently disagree here with Pinker, and I wonder what he actually means (not having read the book). He wants me to write here “I disagree with Pinker”, but I just can’t get myself to do that, and I rather write “I apparently disagree here with Pinker”.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      He surely is concerned that the hedging means something different to lay audience, who aren’t comfortable with degrees of confidence. Something is either true or it isn’t.

    • Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      One can always say things like ‘based on these results it can be concluded that…’, or one can put in a little first person perspective. After that you can pretty much say whatever you damn well please.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      I think there are contexts for “hedging”. When used inappropriately, I call them “weasel words”. I think we’ll need to see the context in which Pinker speaks of them.

      • Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

        Yep! Several of our managers are especial critical of weasel words (amongst other sins) in their peer review of our research reports.

        /@

      • Posted June 6, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Yes yes you nailed it – it’s the line between weasel and hedging you have to mind. I don’t fault PCC for hedging: he’s trying to be precise and factual, so when he needs to say something less than that, he makes his level of confidence plain. Perhaps Pinker has a more artful way of navigating the fuzzy areas, but if he does it would be only that, more artful – the underling goal is the same: don’t assert knowledge when you do not have it.

        I have never seen PCC be a weasel. However, IMHO, he does not post enough about weasels, which really are the cutest darn things … !

        • Posted June 6, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

          If you’ve got weasels in your hedges, perhaps you should consider using badgers to ferret them out…?

          b&

          • Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

            No, no, no. What you otter do is…

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

              ….get those otters working like busy beavers.

              • Posted June 7, 2014 at 12:34 am | Permalink

                But beavers are stoatally different.

                /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 7, 2014 at 6:04 am | Permalink

                I mustelid include the rodents!

              • Posted June 7, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

                Is the guilt gnawing at you?

                /@

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 7, 2014 at 7:26 am | Permalink

                The hole the gnawing has made is cavy.

              • Posted June 7, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

                That’s worth £1.05!

                /@

              • HaggisForBrains
                Posted June 7, 2014 at 5:56 am | Permalink

                And weasely distinguished.

              • Dominic
                Posted June 9, 2014 at 5:36 am | Permalink

                Write with some mink…

              • Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:19 am | Permalink

                If you do you must elide some words…

                /@

    • Harrison
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Pinker is speaking to politicians and journalists, not scientists and science writers. And the issue is not one of fearing being wrong, it’s fearing taking any strong stand which could make them vulnerable to criticism.

    • marvol19
      Posted June 7, 2014 at 1:34 am | Permalink

      I also think Steve is not so much thinking of scientific writing but more popular-science or even general writing.
      No need to hedge when it comes to evolution at large or things as the following:

      http://xkcd.com/1368/

      (is there anything xkcd doesn’t have a great cartoon about?)

  3. eric
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    The “hedging” stung a bit, for I’m occasionally guilty of that. It certainly comes from the hedging that’s absolutely necessary in writing scientific papers.

    Yep, I was thinking that too. Scientists import their journalistic style of writing into their vernacular writing, to bad effect.

    …and you wouldn’t believe how many hedging words I just eliminated from the first draft of that sentence. :)

  4. Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    When I watched Pinker’s presentation of his book to the MIT students, it sounded more like an updated rewrite of Robert Graves’s 1943 book on “THE READER OVER YOUR SHOULDER”, which is essentially about editing first-draft copy.

    Graves preached the indispensable qualities of CLARITY (for comprehension) and ELEGANCE (for charm and reading interest).
    Pinker has relabeled those concepts into SENSE and STYLE.
    Other style writers have added SIMPLICITY. But simplicity is relative to the knowledge of the readers or audience, and less measurable. In fact, it is an element of CLARITY.

    Graves was the original creative writer and poet, and an obsessed lover of the literature of the Ancient Greeks, to whom we owe most of our modern values.
    CLARITY was a result of the sharp outlines of things and objects in the bright Mediterranean sunshine of Greece. It was later opposed in Europe to the misty concepts of German thinkers nurtured in the darkness of the Black Forest.
    ELEGANCE was the supreme value for Graves.

    I am just curious to see how much credit Graves is being given as a source and inspiration by Pinker in this new book.

    • JBlilie
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      I love Graves’ writing.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted June 7, 2014 at 12:41 am | Permalink

      When I watched a video of Pinker talking about the book last year, I think Graves was mentioned. Possibly I’m mistaken.

  5. Greg Esres
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    “it may be appropriate to hedge it a bit. ”

    The problem is the effort to communicate accurately can undermine the information to be conveyed to the audience. For instance:

    Statement: Evidence points strongly to the fact that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.

    Interpretation: So no one really knows, then?

    • Kevin
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      Agreed. So much of science wills itself to be truthful about the certainty of observations, which is never absolute. It is not the language that is abusive, so much as the audience that brings their limited knowledge to the subject when they read the language.

  6. Clive Page
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I wonder if some of the problem are caused by the ease with which one can now edit one’s own prose.

    I know that I write best by starting at the beginning and going on to the end and then stopping; in between I take care to make sure I don’t use the same word or phrase twice close together, and to vary sentence length and structure. Then, sometimes, I feel the urge to re-read what I have written and edit it radically – which is so easy on a computer. Then I change one phrase to what I think is a better one, only to find that I’ve used the “better one” just a sentence or two further along. So I have to change that, and so on. The end result is often less elegant than it started out.

    When I first started out writing one had to use a typewriter, and correcting things was a real chore. I think sometimes that produced better results.

    • jesse
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      “Then I change one phrase to what I think is a better one, only to find that I’ve used the “better one” just a sentence or two further along.”

      Yes. I have absolutely decided that this happens (to me) because I can only see so much on a screen. In the old days you could have your previous pages spread out on the desk to look at as you continued to write, and you could refer to them as one body of work.

      This is why I am not fond of the idea that young kids in school are now doing their compositions on ipads. You can’t flip thru pages easily and you can’t lay out the pages on your desk. I do not think it will help their writing and cognitive skills. I think time will show that, but it might be too late by the time it shows up in society.

      • JBlilie
        Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Much of technology is tending to degrade language skills: Texting, email shortcuts, Ceiling Cat help us: Tw**ter.

        (Some of this is the “rest of the culture”: Sound bites instead of dialogue, etc.; but it seems to me they are mutually reinforcing.)

        • jesse
          Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I think they are mutually reinforcing too.

          There was a discussion on U.S. public radio some time back (A Way With Words) as to how people who read paper books can quickly flip to a specific page to find something years later, based on its spatial location. But not so with the e- stuff.

          (I am also dismayed that penmanship is not being taught any more in many U.S. schools. I instantly thought it ironic that Pinker’s book cover is in cursive.)

  7. Scote
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “(I’d get the Kindle version, but I’m simply unable to read electronic print).”

    Says the guy who I count on to comment incisively on stuff posted all over the interwebs. :-)

    I’m sympathetic to your plight, having suffered it myself, but I do find it interesting how we can read on-line all day for work or whatnot and still feel an aversion to reading long form material electronically. There is a disconnect somewhere, and I’m not sure what it is, nor whether it is merely the habit of reading long form in print asserting itself.

    I’ll say this, though, the latest kindle screens and the latest high pixel density tablets and phones really make a huge difference. The text literally (as in literally) as sharp as that of an actual printed page.

  8. Bruce Lyon
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    We are also trained to hedge by reviewers and editors, often rightly so because some of the evidence we include in journal papers is not uniformly strong.

  9. Gordon Hill
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    For one author’s view on becoming a better writer, consider Stephen King’s, On Writing, which is a twofer — first half a writer’s memoir, second half a tutorial — which encourages one to write and read every day.

    • JBlilie
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      I will! Thanks!

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

        Welcome. BTW, for speakers, his advice is equally beneficial when one subs ‘speaking’ for ‘writing’ and ‘listening’ for ‘reading’.

  10. Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    It is permissible in fiction to write dialogue that includes claims the speaker would never be able to factually support, but unless the author counters, qualifies, or otherwise explains/justifies this prose her or his reader’s may well set the work aside permanently, and also never bother with anything else the author ever composes.

    This is even more true for me as a reader when it comes to nonfiction. I anticipate that Pinker accurately distinguishes between accuracy and inaccuracy when deciding whether an author is either mindfully careful or unnecessarily hedges.

  11. JBlilie
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I will be pre-ordering.

    I can also highly recommend:

    On Writing Well by William Zinsser

    (Amazon)

    And, for all it’s been run down of late, I really like The Elements of Style. Although it doesn’t really instruct you in style, it does help you avoid many bad pitfalls and helps you focus on content instead of style (points). (I detest books where style is substituted for content.)

    And, to improve your writing, nothing works better than practice (like every other worthwhile skill). And reading widely and voraciously. And editing your own and others’ writing.

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Zinsser is a cornerstone tome for non-fiction. For those who like bargains, used copies in good condition are available for less than four bucks including shipping at Abebooks http://bit.ly/1lbuL08

  12. Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    “Most academics … effortlessly dispense sludge,” writes Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist and writer.

    . . . He argues that while many scholars do groundbreaking work, and have important ideas, “their writing stinks.”

    As Pinker must surely be aware, that sludge is often deliberate, and not merely a result of lacking communication knowhow. It is intended to mask or inflate what are incorrect or trivial ideas.

    • JBlilie
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      As Peter Medawar said, “[N]o one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood; people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.”

    • John K.
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      I think perhaps the greatest sins of Sophisticated Theologians™ is their deliberate flouting of effective communication in their constant pursuit of goal post shifting and well poisoning.

      The purpose of writing is communication, it cannot be emphasized enough. Writing that purposefully makes communication difficult or deceptive has no redemption.

    • Scote
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      “As Pinker must surely be aware, that sludge is often deliberate, and not merely a result of lacking communication knowhow. It is intended to mask or inflate what are incorrect or trivial ideas.”

      Indeed, and obfuscation works. We have a bias for thinking text written with jargon is more insightful. I recall one study that found that TAs gave higher grades to papers written in jargon than papers that made the identical conclusions in clear language.

  13. JBlilie
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I also recommend Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, which I am currently reading in this wonderful collection: Essays

    (This collection does have two serious flaws: 1. No index of essays (no index at all) and 2. it does not indicate at the top of each page which essay is on that page. For all that, it is still a great collection of Orwell.)

    • Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Other editions — such as the Penguin Classics one – evidently seem not to suffer from those apparent flaws … 

      /@

    • Filippo
      Posted June 7, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      I can’t remember its title, but in an essay Orwell lamented the ascendance and predominance of words created from Latin and Greek word roots and prefixes, at the expense of Anglo-Saxon.

      I’m afraid I disagree with him. With a bit of etymological knowledge, these words contain the clues to make them easy to understand and remember. What Anglo-Saxon word would he have had one use in the place of, e.g., “hypothesis” or “geography” or “transport”?

      • Posted June 7, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Without the Ancient Greeks, their language, their science, their thoughts, their curiosity, their sports, their social mores, their architecture, their sculptures, our modern world would not exist.
        No way Anglo-Saxons or any other European tribes could have offered valid substitutes.

        • Filippo
          Posted June 7, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          ” . . . their social mores . . . .”

          Except slavery. But I’m speaking personally in offering that critique, and not for the United States of Amnesia, which itself as a political entity is absolutely in no position to presume to critique the ancient Greeks on this “peculiar” institution.

          • Posted June 7, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            Good point.
            Although, it goes without saying I was not referring to this practice under the term “social mores”.

            Slavery was nothing typically Greek, but existed as a pretty general practice all around the Mediterranean. The Hebrew Old Testament is full of slaves, and so is the New Testament.

            Slavery cannot be categorized as a product of the specific Greek culture of Antiquity. But the interest in science and sports, the beauty of the human body, and the brilliant sharpness of “ideas” certainly can.

            Pinker would perhaps include slavery in an expanded study of our “worse angels”, and describe another triumphant victory of our “better angels”. Nothing to do specifically with Ancient Greeks.

            And the exceptional clarity of the ancient Greek language could not be imitated by any other. It’s easy to see the contrast to clumsy and heavy-footed Latin.

            • Filippo
              Posted June 7, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

              “And the exceptional clarity of the ancient Greek language could not be imitated by any other. It’s easy to see the contrast to clumsy and heavy-footed Latin”

              I suppose I need to take on the motivation and perseverance of Erasmus, who taught himself Greek. One has to learn a new alphabet, though I know some of it, and there’s a partial one-to-one correspondence between it and the Roman alphabet. (e.g., the triangle, “delta,” the fourth letter, begins with the 4th letter, “d.”) Perhaps we’d see more Greek, and less Latin, quotations chiseled on buildings did we know the alphabet.

              • Posted June 7, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

                The Greek alphabet is not very difficult to assimilate.
                Here is an excellent program, ELPENOR, for beginners in Greek:
                http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-language.asp

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 7, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

                My alma mater was founded by Baptists and our motto was in Greek. I found this annoying until I learned Greek and deciphered its Christy message myself.

                Learning a new alphabet is actually easy. You learn it with the words and you quickly learn that shape is that sound. It becomes so normal in only a week or two of learning, that you don’t really notice the difference between Latin letters. I was assured this as a child when. A friend of my dad’s took it upon himself to learn Latin, so I was less daunted when I studied Greek and I verified it to be true.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 7, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

                Duh I meant to say when my dad’s friend learned Russian. :) he used to read Pravda for practice back in the Soviet, iron curtain days.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted June 7, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

              Interesting that you find Greek clear. I always found it very foreign compared to Latin, most likely because Latin permeates English, I already knew French when I learned Latin and I studied Latin for longer.

              However, I also found Ancient Greek culture more distant and foreign than Roman culture. In particular, Greek women were much less free than Roman women, even when Roman women were the most bound to their husbands.

              Of course, the alphabet is also odd to is but that is surprisingly easy to overcome. The weirdest thing in Greek is its verbiness if it’s nouns and how it can be incredibly difficult to separate nouns from verbs in sentences. Sometimes, I felt like I could translate something in a completely different way if I made one tiny mistake.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted June 7, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

            Yeah social mores is not something the Greeks and Romans were good at. It was pretty normal for them to make fun of people with disabilities or less attractive features and racism was considered pretty normal too.

            Now, their legal system (the Roman one) is something quite lovely. People still study it full time.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 7, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        I more lament that our language is not as meaningful to us. German actually makes more sense to me even though I am a native Emglish speaker. That is because English is full of Latin and Greek and although I have studied them, they don’t carry the immediacy of equivalent English words put together to convey the meaning.

  14. Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Don’t worry about feeling inferior, Jerry; it’s quality, not quantity, that counts.

    Oh no…wait…that doesn’t apply in this case. Oh well. I wonder how Pinker feels about the use of the ellipsis to denote a pause.

  15. Kevin
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I have poured over hundreds of science articles and not one of them could not have been written differently and still conveyed the same message. So much of word choice is arbitrary.

    I have seen a trend, however, that suggest a growing tendency to obfuscate is greater, because it appears to be more difficult to make profound statements about observations we make of nature.

  16. Robert Seidel
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    > Steve, can you take a break now so the rest of us don’t feel so inferior?

    Didn’t he tell you he could never write the way you do on this website?
    Plus, you wrote about 5000 book pages during the last 6 years – more than a great deal of writers get out in their lifetime.

    • Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Jerry, don’t beat yourself up; journalists and pundits crank out many times more words than anybody else, and you’ve taken both roles upon yourself in addition to book-writing. Not only do you have nothing to be ashamed of, you’re probably one of the most prolific writers of substance there is right now — one of the ones that makes the rest of us look like lazy bums!

      b&

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        I look like a lazy bum because I kind of am.

  17. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I have been waiting for this book in great anticipation and I’m glad the time is nigh for us to get it!

  18. Greg Esres
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

    This can’t be brought up enough, and you can exchange “stupidity” with “self-delusion” or “incompetence” with an equal degree of truth.

    I’m very hesitant to accept that someone who is wrong is actually lying, unless there is unambiguous evidence, which there rarely is.

  19. Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Given the topic of this thread, are we free to criticise others’ grammar? 😮

    /@

  20. bobsgutarshop
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    . . . evidently, perhaps, presumably, I can’t wait to read this book.

  21. Larry Esser
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    This book should be well worth getting and reading because a lot of science writing is the pits. For those of us who are not scientists, clear writing about it is a treasure; it lets us see things only scientists have hitherto seen. There is a saying about flight instructing: “You should know your subject well enough and be able to explain it simply enough so that even your (non-pilot) grandmother can understand it.” This should go for scientists who write for the public, too.

  22. Natalie Angier
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Don’t hedge? That’s advice from a scientist? How else are you supposed to signal your uncertainty except with “wads of fluff” like “possibly,” “apparently,” “suggests that” etc.? With emoticons?

    • Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Is this our great Natalie Angier from the NY Times? Whose articles I try never to miss?

      How good it is to hear from a true professional practitioner of communication, one who strives to make scientific ideas and findings understandable to a public whose level of knowledge and mental capacities must be pretty hard to define in advance.

      Each one of your articles is a psychological experiment on how easy or difficult it is to communicate with the public at large, even one assumed to be accustomed to reading the high-brow style of the NY Times.

      Your comments from the field are most valuable in this discussion.

      I hope that you’ll have the chance to write your own review of Pinker’s book in the Times. From a practitioner about a theorist of public communication.

      • Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Is Pinker not a practitioner of public communication too? Or are those popular books on my bookshelves only an illusion?

        /@

        • Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

          True, but that’s not the point.

          Here Natalie is addressing a book that claims to be THE THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO WRITING IN THE 21ST CENTURY.
          This book is a mixture of criticism, recommendations, and advice, and it is justified to call its author a theorist of communication for the purpose of discussing the contents of this book.

          It so happens that Natalie Angier is a day-to-day (or is it more week-to-week?) writer on science for the large readership of the New York Times.
          That job involves her in closer and more immediate contact with her reading public than is the case for a writer of books, who can simply sit back and relax, waiting for the reviews to appear. And who make take a couple of years to respond.

          Natalie is on the frontline of science communication, not in the upper-floor room where the manuals are being prepared for the troops.

          Plato used to say that writing introduces a distance between the mind of the writer and his reader, which dialogue overcomes with direct interaction and better grasp of the ideas being discussed, as ambiguities, obscurities, and contradictions can be instantly attacked and criticized to get a clearer view of the “Idea”.

          In the same spirit, press articles with immediate comments and feedback, and even more promptly the Internet, all manage to bridge that distance gap and produce more instant communication than books sitting on shelves.

          • Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

            CORRECTION:

            “and who MAY take a couple of years to respond.”

            • Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

              It’s gracious of you to give them permission to do so. Perhaps you meant “might”. 😝

              /@

          • Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

            The point is that you made a black-and-white distinction which is in fact black-and-grey. Pinker *is* a practitioner of public communication as well as a theorist. His written work might not have the immediacy or intimacy of Angier’s but he is certainly very practiced in oral communication, which experience informs his approach to writing.

            /@

            • Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

              I have never denied this.
              I do have all those Pinker books on my shelves too, and I have read them, thoroughly.

              And when it comes to Pinker’s studies of language, I dare call him a theorist of language, and about the structure of the mind, a theorist of mental working, and recently he’s become a theorist judging the outcome of the battle of the angels in our nature. Now he’s posing as a theorist of communication.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted June 7, 2014 at 12:59 am | Permalink

      With statistics, preferably. :)

  23. Leigh Jackson
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I rarely, if ever, introduce a hedge after reading what I’ve written. I frequently get rid of them. A hedge will pull me up sharp sometimes, making me think hard about what I want to say and whether it’s worth saying. Sometimes, if I feel the hedge should stay, I just don’t bother to go there. Other times, I decide the hedge is going and mentally gear up to defend the point.

    • Posted June 6, 2014 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      If I may engage in a bit of ribbing…you do realize that you opened your post with an hedge?

      The job of a scientist is to apportion belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation. That is, getting the error bars in the right place. Once you’ve got the error bars properly positioned, then you can worry about narrowing them.

      Indicating to the audience where those error bars lie is the most important thing a scientist or science journalist can do. Since all results are provisional, since the error bars never actually touch, there must always be some measure of hedging in any statement of fact — implied if nothing else. The wider the error bars, the more hedging is called for.

      This has nothing to do with timidity or lack of confidence or low self esteem or whatever; it’s a simple matter of truthfully conveying to the audience the full measure of understanding.

      A measure that’s invariably imprecise, to some degree or another….

      Cheers,

      b&

  24. Posted June 6, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Certainly sounds like a book to add to my “to read” list.

  25. Jonathan Dore
    Posted June 7, 2014 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Hedging is often crucial for honesty, and not just in science. I’m writing a book at the moment about 16th and 17th-century Arctic explorers, and as you can imagine, the surviving source material leaves many questions unanswered. To craft something that’s actually interesting to read you have to make educated guesses to fill in many of the gaps, and for the sake of honesty those guesses need to be flagged by words like “probably”, “possibly”, and “perhaps”.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted June 7, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      Hedging is crucial for honesty.
      One of the best ways to spot pseudoscience is to notice that there’s no hedging. They just declare the truth without evidence or else just expect the reader to connect whatever is offered as evidence as evidence.
      Repacked Oprah is a genius at this.

  26. Diane G.
    Posted June 27, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    sub


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