The Impediments of Style: Advice from Steven Pinker and the CIA

November 26, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 1 4 min read


Earlier this year, when the CIA’s style manual was released online (pdf), writers and editors across the web took note. Bureaucracies are often criticized for propagating opaque prose — the kind of double-speak that pronounces very little with an abundance of words. But here were CIA directives that sounded far more like Strunk and White than big government.

Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.

Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.

Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.

The stylistic advice was surprisingly insightful, applicable to novelists and bureau chiefs alike. As with all in-house style guides, there was also plenty of real estate devoted to the specific semantic battles at hand:

Use hyphens (not en dashes) in the compounds designating Russian submarine classes when the compounds are used adjectively. If the meaning is clear, refer to these submarines by the class designator alone. Yankee-class, Delta-class, Victor-class, etc.

Specific usage guidance is, of course, the hallmark of the in-house style guide. It attempts to systematize and make consistent the thousands of choices writers and editors make across the organization’s publications and websites. Should it be Web or web, Internet of internet, the Oxford comma (Tom, Dick, and Jane) or the AP-style comma (Tom, Dick and Jane)?

Many style manual enthusiasts — myself included — came away from reading the Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications impressed with its thoroughness, precision, and literary authority. It was a far cry from the stereotype of greybeard bureaucrats churning out impenetrable tomes of officialese.

In Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he argues that opaque prose is not a product of dubious intentions. Bureaucrats and business managers aren’t trying to sound smarter or more important than they really are, just as tech writers aren’t trying to provoke an aneurism when they write cryptic wi-fi installation instructions. Pinker sets aside the “bamboozlement theory” of bad writing and, instead, settles on the Curse of Knowledge as prime mover and impediment — a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

coverAs an antidote for stuffy or impenetrable prose, he offers us the paradigm of “classic style,” a model articulated by the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in their book Clear and Simple as the Truth. According to this model, “a writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation.” In order to achieve this, the writer must enlist the sensibilities and imagination of the reader. It’s not that far from Flannery O’Connor’s idea that fiction is like an essay that makes an argument to the reader’s senses. The argument is clear and concrete; there is something to see. The prose becomes a window onto the world.

In addition to debunking the idea that there’s a widespread conspiracy among fussy prose writers to delude their readers, Pinker also suggests that the grammar and usage police are often unnecessarily grumpy and shortsighted. “Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.” The language grows and adapts to our needs and it never stagnates. Strunk and White might have condemned contact as a verb because it seemed “vague and self-important,” but Pinker defends its very indeterminacy: “…the vagueness of to contact is exactly why it caught on: sometimes a writer doesn’t need to know how one person will get in touch with another, as long as he does.”

Pinker is on a mission to remove the heckling usage purists from the back of the linguistics classroom. As a psycholinguist and cognitive scientist, Pinker turns out to be oddly at ease when arguing that declining language standards — if they are declining at all — will not result in the fall of civilization. He’s not arguing for the abandonment of rules and guidelines, but for a middle way — “…writers will do themselves a favor, and increase the amount of pleasure in the world, if they use a word in the senses that are accepted by literate readers.”

If there are impediments to a clear, evocative, and forceful style, they can be organized under a few descriptive headings: metadiscourse (the classic, self-referential preamble about why this topic matters), the burden of cliché, the curse of knowledge, false reasoning, apologizing, mixed metaphors, a blindness to the engineering of syntax. Zombie nouns, a term borrowed from the writing scholar Helen Sword, deserve special scrutiny. This apocalyptic vision occurs when the writer turns a “perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix…rather than postponing something, you implement its postponement.” Sword and Pinker call them zombie nouns because “they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.”

You can feel Pinker having fun on the page as he slays the demons of soggy prose and the purist’s irrational scorn with equal zeal. Ultimately he’s not just interested in explaining why pedants get it wrong when they say “describe yourself in 50 words or less” should be “describe yourself in 50 words or fewer.” He’s happy to school us in the misapplication of the count noun rule, but he’s happier when enticing us to reverse engineer the web of words and meanings imbedded in a beautiful passage. Language is personal with Pinker and he even offers us a passage written by his novelist wife so we can meditate on its loveliness. This is ultimately why style matters in the first place, Pinker argues, because it allows us to create a window onto the world for others to look through. The CIA’s correct hyphenation of a Russian submarine class is part of that, but so too is the expansion of clarity and beauty.

is the author of four novels, including At the Edge of A Wood, forthcoming from Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared widely, including in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, and The Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal. He teaches writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. More information can be found on his website:

One comment:

  1. Looking forward to reading this very much, sounds fascinating. But I am a bit alarmed at how quickly the most breathless reviews of this book are dismissing Strunk and White as “tired.”

    Suggest a revisit (as ghost if need be) in another forty years to see if Strunk and White is still in the game. I suspect it will be.

    Moe Murph
    Veteran of Passing Eras of Business Reengineering, Total Quality Management and Multi-Hued Flavors of “Disruption”

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