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The Sense of Style:
The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
In Evelyn Waugh's brilliant war trilogy, Sword of Honour, one of the most sinister characters - loosely based on Waugh himself - is Corporal-Major Ludovic, an upwardly mobile murderer and writer of romantic fiction who becomes an addict of that potent intoxicant, the English language. Ludovic writes a volume of pensees (a clear hit at Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave): Not laboriously, luxuriously rather, Ludovic worked over his notebooks, curtailing, expanding, polishing; often consulting Fowler, not disdaining Roget; writing and rewriting in his small clerkly hand on the lined sheets of paper which the army supplied.
Like Ludovic, Waugh was consumed by matters of style. Of his own novels he commented, 'I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed'. One might trace this obsession back to his hero-worship of his schoolmaster at Lancing, the dashing JF Roxburgh, later the first headmaster of Stowe. Waugh was drawn to Roxburgh's love of language, his dislike of cliche and slang, his attention to precision of grammar. In the boys' essays 'oo' in the margin stood for 'orribel oxymoron', and 'ccc' for 'cliche, cant or commonplace'.
Ludovic's bible is HW Fowler's hugely influential guide, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century might be regarded as an update of Fowler, eschewing pedantry, convoluted or pompous sentence construction, cliche, and inflexible grammatical rules. Pinker is every bit as witty as Fowler, and writes in a similarly vigorous, direct and idiosyncratic manner. His book is accordingly much less boring than one might expect of a style manual.
Indeed, it is often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Professor Pinker directs his satire against 'professionalese', language that obfuscates, evades, and tells us nothing. Academics, think-tank policy wonks and management consultants come in for a particular lashing. Pinker nails the 'Zombie noun' that turns prose into 'a night of the living dead'. 'Prevention of neurogenesis diminished social avoidance,' writes a researcher describing the behaviour of lab mice. Why not simply say 'the mice no longer avoided other mice', asks Pinker.
Academics love the sound of big words: 'Participants were tested under conditions of good to excellent acoustic isolation'. What is really meant is 'We tested the students in a quiet room'. Or how about healthcare jargon: 'There is a significant positive correlation between measures of food intake and body mass index.' Translation: 'the more you eat, the fatter you get'.
Good writing is hard. I've always loved the Mark Twain observation, 'I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.' Pinker knows that simplicity is more difficult to perfect than abstruse convolution. It helps enormously that he is such a beautiful stylist himself. Many of his sentences give great pleasure and he is never lofty or pleased with himself. He quotes from Churchill one moment and Dolly Parton the next ('You wouldn't believe how much it costs to look this cheap').
He is also refreshingly uncensorious about the internet, texting and blogging, finding in these media, as many of us do, inventiveness, creativity and a resurgence of the delights of the written word.
When I was a schoolteacher, I was constantly asked about how to improve writing style. Can good writing be taught? 'Read a page of Swift a day' was Ted Hughes's advice. The best advice I could pass on was that of George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language: 'Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if it possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; never use the passive where you can you use the active; never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous'.
So, for me, there is an Orwell-shaped hole in Pinker's book. A good style rule is that less is more, and Pinker might have done well to condense his final chapter into half a dozen nuggets like Orwell's. The key point is Orwell's last: better to break a rule than apply it too rigorously or pedantically. Orwell himself was fully aware that the quest for simplicity and clarity of language has its dangers. In 1984, the Thought Police restrict language so that they can curtail imagination. 'Newspeak' limits individuality, freedom and self-expression.
Good examples are usually more forceful than good precepts. The only weakness in Pinker's admirable book is the dearth of exemplary quotations from the great English prose stylists such as Dr Johnson, Jane Austen, William Hazlitt and Evelyn Waugh. But I mustn't carp at a book that includes one of my favourite lines from Annie Hall, where a movie producer is overheard saying 'Right now it's only a notion, but I think I can get money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea.'
More books on Words
Whether you're trying to sound sophisticated or simply repeating what you've heard, word fails are all too common and can make smart people sound dumb.
In his latest book, 'The Sense of Style,' Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker explores the most common words and phrases that people stumble over.
The book is like a modern version of Strunk and White's classic 'The Elements of Style,' but one based on linguistics and updated for the 21st century.
Since there is no definitive body governing the rules of the English language like there is for the French language, for example, matters of style and grammar have always remained relatively debatable. Pinker's rules and preferences are no different, but the majority of the words and phrases he identifies are agreed upon and can help your writing and speaking.
We've highlighted the most common mistakes according to Pinker using examples directly from his book along with some of our own.
Here are the main ones to look out for:
- Adverse means detrimental and does not mean averse or disinclined.
Correct: 'There were adverse effects.' / 'I'm not averse to doing that.'
- Appraise means to ascertain the value of and does not mean to apprise or to inform.
Correct: 'I appraised the jewels.' / 'I apprised him of the situation.'
- As far as means the same as but cannot be used the same way as as for.
Correct: 'As far as the money is concerned... ' / As for the money...
- Begs the question means assumes what it should be proving and does not mean raises the question.
Correct: 'When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting 'German quality,' but that just begs the question.'
- Bemused means bewildered and does not mean amused.
Correct: The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused. / The silly comedy amused me.
- Cliche is a noun and is not an adjective.
Correct: 'Shakespeare used a lot of cliches.' / The plot was so cliched.
- Credible means believable and does not mean credulous or gullible.
Correct: His sales pitch was not credible. / The con man took advantage of credulous people.
- Criteria is the plural, not the singular of criterion.
Correct: These are important criteria.
- Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: 'Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals,' Pinker writes. 'But I still like it.']
Correct: 'This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.'
- Depreciate means to decrease in value and does not mean to deprecate or to disparage.
Correct: My car has depreciated a lot over the years. / She deprecated his efforts.
- Dichotomy means
two mutually exclusive alternatives and does not mean difference or discrepancy.
Correct: There is a dichotomy between even and odd numbers. / There is a discrepancy between what we see and what is really there.
- Disinterested means unbiased and does not mean uninterested.
Correct: 'The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge.' / Why are you so uninterested in my story?
- Enervate means to sap or to weaken and does not mean to energize.
Correct: That was an enervating rush hour commute. / That was an energizing cappuccino.
- Enormity means extreme evil and does not mean enormousness. [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.]
Correct: The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears. / The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.
- Flaunt means to show off and does not mean to flout.
Correct: 'She flaunted her abs.' / 'She flouted the rules.'
- Flounder means to flop around ineffectually and does not mean to founder or to sink to the bottom.
Correct: 'The indecisive chairman floundered.' / 'The headstrong chairman foundered.'
- Fortuitous means coincidental or unplanned and does not mean fortunate.
Correct: Running into my old friend was fortuitous. / It was fortunate that I had a good amount of savings after losing my job.
- Fulsome means unctuous or excessively or insincerely complimentary and does not mean full or copious.
Correct: She didn't believe his fulsome love letter. / The bass guitar had a full sound.
- Homogeneous is pronounced as homo-genius and 'homogenous' is not a word but a corruption of homogenized.
Correct: The population was not homogeneous; it was a melting pot.
- Hone means to sharpen and does not mean to home in on or to converge upon.
Correct: She honed her writing skills./ We're homing in on a solution.
- Hot button means an emotional, divisive controversy and does not mean a hot topic.
Correct: 'She tried to stay away from the hot button of abortion.' / Drones are a hot topic in the tech world.
- Hung means suspended and does not mean suspended from the neck until dead.
Correct: I hung the picture on my wall. / The prisoner was hanged.
- Intern (verb) means to detain or to imprison and does not mean to inter or to bury.
Correct: The rebels were interned in the military jail. / The king was interred with his jewels.
- Ironic means uncannily incongruent and does not mean inconvenient or unfortunate.
Correct: 'It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory.' / It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.
- Irregardless is not a word but a portmanteau of regardless and irrespective. [Note: Pinker acknowledges that certain schools of thought regard 'irregardless' as simply non-standard, but he insists it should not even be granted that.]
Correct: Regardless of how you feel, it's objectively the wrong decision. / Everyone gets a vote, irrespective of their position.
- Literally means in actual fact and does not mean figuratively.
Correct: I didn't mean for you to literally run over here. / I'd rather die than listen to another one of his lectures - figuratively speaking, of course!
- Luxuriant means abundant or florid and does not mean luxurious.
Correct: The poet has a luxuriant imagination. / The car's fine leather seats were luxurious.
- Meretricious means tawdry or offensively insincere and does not mean meritorious.
Correct: We rolled our eyes at the meretricious speech. / The city applauded the meritorious mayor.
- Mitigatemeans to alleviate and does not mean to militate or to provide reasons for.
Correct: The spray should mitigate the bug problem. / Their inconceivable differences will militate against the treaty.
- New Age means spiritualistic, holistic and does not mean modern, futuristic.
Correct: He is a fan of New Age mindfulness techniques. / That TV screen is made from a high-end modern glass.
- Noisome means smelly and does not mean noisy.
Correct: I covered my nose when I walked past the noisome dump. / I covered my ears when I heard the noisy motorcycle speed by.
- Nonplussed means stunned, bewildered and does not mean bored, unimpressed.
Correct: 'The market crash left the experts nonplussed.' / 'His market pitch left the investors unimpressed.'
- Opportunism means seizing or exploiting opportunities and does not mean creating or promoting opportunities.
Correct: His opportunism brought him to the head of the company. / The party ran on promoting economic opportunities for the middle class.
- Parameter means a variable and does not mean a boundary condition, a limit.
Correct: The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates. / We need to work within budgetary limits.
- Phenomena is a plural count noun - not a mass noun.
Correct: The phenomenon was intriguing, but it was only one of many phenomena gathered by the telescope.
- Politically correct means dogmatically left-liberal and does not mean fashionable, trendy. [Note: Pinker considers its contemporary roots as a pejorative term by American and British conservatives, not its more casual use as meaning inoffensive.]
Correct: 'The theory that little boys fight because of the way they have been socialised is the politically correct one.' / Williamsburg is the trendy place to live in Brooklyn.
- Practicable means easily put into practice and does not mean practical.
Correct: His French was practicable in his job, which required frequent trips to Paris. / Learning French before taking the job was a practical decision.
- Proscribe means to condemn, to forbid and does not mean to prescribe, to recommend, to direct.
Correct: The policy proscribed employees from drinking at work. / The doctor prescribed an antibiotic.
- Protagonist means active character and does not mean proponent.
Correct: 'Vito Corleone was the protagonist in 'The Godfather.' / He is a proponent of solar energy.
- Refute means to prove to be false and does not mean to allege to be false, to try to refute. [Note: That is, it must be used only in factual cases.]
Correct: His work refuted the theory that the Earth was flat.
- Reticent means shy, restrained and does not mean reluctant.
Correct: He was too reticent to ask her out. / 'When rain threatens, fans are reticent to buy tickets to the ballgame.'
- Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk are used in the past participle - not the past tense.
Correct: I've shrunk my shirt. / I shrank my shirt.
- Simplistic means naively or overly simple and does not mean simple or pleasingly simple.
Correct: His simplistic answer suggested he wasn't familiar with the material. / She liked the chair's simple look.
- Staunch means loyal, sturdy and does not mean to stanch a flow.
Correct: Her staunch supporters defended her in the press. / The nurse was able to stanch the bleeding.
- Tortuous means twisting and does not mean torturous.
Correct: The road through the forest was tortuous. / Watching their terrible acting for two hours was a torturous experience.
- Unexceptionable means not worthy of objection and does not mean unexceptional, ordinary.
Correct: 'No one protested her getting the prize, because she was an unexceptionable choice.' / 'They protested her getting the prize, because she was an unexceptional choice.'
- Untenable means indefensible or unsustainable and does not mean painful or unbearable.
Correct: Now that all the facts have been revealed, that theory is untenable. / Her death brought him unbearable sadness.
- Urban legend means an intriguing and widely circulated but false story and does not mean someone who is legendary in a city.
Correct: 'Alligators in the sewers is an urban legend.' / Al Capone was a legendary gangster in Chicago.
- Verbal means in linguistic form and does not mean oral, spoken.
Correct: Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.
- An effect means an influence; to effect means to put into effect; to affect means either to influence or to fake.
Correct: They had a big effect on my style. / The law effected changes at the school. / They affected my style. / He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.
- To lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to recline; to lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to set down; to lie (intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to fib.
Correct: He lies on the couch all day. / He lays a book upon the table. / He lies about what he does.
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