Book Category: Motivational,

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (book summary)

Author: Steven Pinker
Life Changing Principles
Quality of Writing
Overall Value
pros: Great for "loosening up" grammar fans
cons: Book does not practice what it preaches
overall rating


Oh man. This is a grammar-focused, dense 300+ page whopper that reviewed tons of different famous language quarrels throughout history, and their uniform answer: language evolves, so does grammar. No one is really right, so long as the meaning is clear and the word choice purposeful.

Steven Pinker carries the banner for minimal, clear writing…but unfortunately, does not always follow the rules himself. This book felt like a chore to get through, whereas most other grammar-focused (like Elements of Style) come across as heavenly, enjoyable looks into the backend of language. For instance, Pinker included sentence trees. When was the last time you had to break up a sentence into trees to understand verb, adjective, and noun?


  • The goal of all clear writing is to ensure the reader doesn’t stumble through page, paragraph, and sentence.
  • Let go of your long-loved grammar rules! They have either changed or the meaning of the words themselves have changed enough to warrant a “new rule.”
  • If you have a grammatical question, refer to the very very latest edition of any guide, and take it with a dose of doubt.


  • Attempt to eliminate cliche from your writing, as much as possible.
  • Try to eliminate modifiers as best as you can, to keep your work from sounding “Jargony.” (That is an example of one)
  • Try to be less angry about your love of particular grammar rules.


Savoring good prose is not just a more effective way to develop a writerly ear than obeying a set of commandments; it’s a more inviting one.

Good writing is understood in the mind’s eye.

Writing above all is an act of pretense. We have to visualize ourselves in some kind of conversation or correspondence, or oration, or soliloquy, and put works in the mouth of the little avatar who represents us in this simulated world.

It takes cognitive toil and literary dexterity to pare an argument down to its essentials, narrate it in an orderly sequence, and illustrate it with analogies that are both familiar and accurate. As Dolly Parton said, “You wouldn’t believe how much it costs to look this cheap.”

Like all writing decisions, the amount of signposting requires judgement and compromise: too much, and the reader bogs down in reading signposts; too little, and she has no idea where she is being led.

Thoughtless cliches can even be dangerous.

A shocking number of phrases that drop easily from the fingers are bloated with words that encumber the reader without conveying any content.

Having prescriptive rules is desirable, indeed indispensable, in many arenas of writing. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

English syntax demands subject before object. Human memory demands light before heavy. Human comprehension demands topic before comment and given before new.

Verbs can be drained of life when they are turned into adjectives, too, as when contribute becomes contributive to.