I have it on reliable authority that Steve Pinker’s next book will be on modern grammar and usage: a Pinkerian update of Strunk and White’s famous The Elements of Style (a book I wore out with frequent use, but learn from the lecture below is flawed). And Steve’s already giving talks about this book to come.
I would have thought that after finishing his 832-page monster, the superb book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steve would have taken a breather, but if you know him you’ll realize that’s not on—and it makes me envious! He’s a book-writing machine, but all his books are engaging and well written.
At any rate, Steve has previewed his book in a new talk, delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), called “A sense of style.” You can see the 77 minute video here.
As the MIT site describes, this is “The first annual Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering lecture about communicating complex scientific and technological subjects clearly and engagingly in the series: ‘Communicating Science and Technology in the 21st Century’.”
And it’s a very good talk. If you have students, show it to them; if you write yourself, watch it. It’s not just about communicating science—to both the public and our colleagues—but about how to write clearly on any nonfiction topic.
His emphasis is on the “classic style,” a style I’ve tried to achieve (without copying its adherents), and of which I first became aware (do not end sentences with prepositions!) by reading Richard Dawkins. Note how Steve compares Dawkins favorably with the world’s most opaque and infuriating academic writer, the postmodernist Judith Butler (see Martha Nussbaum’s magnificant takedown of Butler in The New Republic).
In that style, one paints tangible pictures for the reader but never condescends, and writes as if the text should be read aloud (the “conversational style”); those are valuable tips. Steve’s examples of good and bad prose are enlightening, and his delivery instantiates his own clear but personal style. But watch the video yourself; you won’t regret it.
A screenshot of one of his slides: