OMG! It’s totes cray-cray. What happened to writing with a Sense of Style?

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OMG! How r u supposed 2 find gr8 writing these dayz? : – (

Ugh.

With the advent of texting and social media, the self-appointed “Grammar Police” (and did Grammar Police even exist before the Internet?) are on a round-the-clock dragnet, bemoaning the downfall of the English language. Why do so many people write so poorly? Does the general public even care about good writing anymore? Should they? Should anyone?

Fear not—appearances to the contrary on Facebook, Twitter, and the “Comments” section of your favorite Internet news page, all is well. The language endures. And a new usage guide—one crafted especially for today’s writer—has arrived to ensure that the language will thrive well into the new millennium.

That new guide is The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Written by Steven Pinker (linguist, cognitive scientist, New York Times best-selling author and chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary), The Sense of Style stakes a claim for clear, coherent, stylish prose that isn’t bound by the dogma of usage so often prescribed by traditional writing guides.

“Many style manuals treat traditional rules of usage the way fundamentalists treat the Ten Commandments: as unerring laws chiseled in sapphire for mortals to obey or risk eternal damnation,” Pinker writes. These guides, though, while helpful, are just that: guides, and not immutable law. In his new book, Pinker claims that writers and editors can apply linguistic rules judiciously rather than robotically, always mindful of what the guidelines are designed to accomplish—writing that clearly conveys its message to the reader.

Does this mean that the great writing guides are obsolete? Not at all, according to Pinker, who opens his book with a salute to Strunk and White’s immortal The Elements of Style. Among what Pinker calls the books finest “gems”: “Write with nouns and verbs.” “Put the emphatic words at the end of the sentence.” And, best of all, the book’s “prime directive,” according to Pinker: “Omit needless words.”

For all of his self-professed love for style handbooks, however, Pinker notes that his professional experience has left him with “a growing sense of unease” about the manuals. For example, he points out that Strunk and White have “a tenuous grasp of grammar.” Some well-known guides in their writing actually contradict the very rules they preach. And finally, Pinker says, traditional handbooks fail to adapt to ongoing changes in language.

And these changes are nothing new—they’ve been going on since long before Google was a verb and the “selfie” was actually a thing. “Every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it,” Pinker writes. “Complaints about the decline of the language go at least as far back as the invention of the printing press.”

And he has the historical quotes to prove it. “Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the English language at all,” wrote one expert. “They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.” Is all of this because of too much time spent on Facebook and Twitter? Hardly. This evaluation was written in 1961.

The changing nature of language and how we understand it calls for a manual for a new millennium, and Pinker brings all of his professional experience to bear in The Sense of Style. “By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-handed advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts,” he writes.

In the end, The Sense of Style is more about imagination, empathy, coherence and grammatical insight than it is about blind adherence to rules, however important those rules might be. “Style,” writes Pinker, “adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.” Those who indulge in these pleasures the most—readers as well as writers—will be grateful for The Sense of Style, a book that makes the ability to write better English available to all.

Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.

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