Writing Well in a Crazy Language: Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style"

I've spent the last few weeks burying myself in English style guides. Most of them tell what you have to do, what you can't do, and what’s up to you. This can feel arbitrary: if you’re curious about language, you don’t just want to follow the rules. You want to understand where they come from - and whether they help or hurt the cause of clear communication.

In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker takes on these questions directly, drawing on his psycho-linguistic expertise to show how some principles of grammar and usage reflect basic facts about how our brains work. (In a list of three or more items, for example, we typically put the most powerful item at the end – because it’s too taxing on our short-term memory to put it anywhere else.)

But Pinker also explains how some of our grammar rules are just the arbitrary pronouncements of snobby grammarians. (The “no split infinitive” rule is one; another is the taboo on placing a preposition at the end of a sentence.) Following these rules proves that you’re familiar with the conventions of the English language, but it doesn't reflect anything deeper – and sometimes, you might need to break them.