The Sense of Style [25 December 2014 – 10 AM – C-SPAN2]

Steve Pinker discussing his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

From the description:

Steven Pinker talked about his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, in which he questions why so much of our writing today is bad. Professor Pinker said that while texting and the internet are blamed for developing bad writing habits, especially among young people, good writing has always been a difficult task.

The transcript, made for closed captioning, will convince you of the power of paragraphing if you attempt to read it. I may copy it, watch the lecture Christmas morning, insert paragraphing and ask CSPAN if they would like a corrected copy. 😉

One suggestion for learning to write (like learning to program), that I have heard but never followed, is to type out text written by known good writers. As you probably suspect, my excuse is a lack of time. Perhaps that will be a New Year’s resolution for the coming year.

Becoming a better writer automatically means you will be communicating better with your audience. For some of us that may be a plus or a negative. You have been forewarned.


In case you miss the broadcast, I found the video archive of the presentation. Nothing that will startle you but Pinker is an entertaining speaker.

I am watching the video early and Pinker points out an “inherent problem in the design of language.” [paraphrasing] We hold knowledge in a semantic network in our brains but when we use language to communicate some piece of that knowledge, the order of words in a sentence has to do two things at once:

* Serve as a code for meaning (who did what to whom)

* Present some bits of information to the reader before others (affects how the information is absorbed)

Pinker points out that passive voice allows better prose. Focus remains on the subject. (Is prevalent in bad prose but Pinker argues that is due to the curse of knowledge.)

Question: Do we need a form of passive voice in computer languages? What would that look like?

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