Steven Pinker is a dazzling thinker, an excellent writer and a brilliant matchmaker of the two – marrying complex ideas to simple English.
This has not happened by chance. He has studied hard to make his writing appear easy and now wishes to share his learning.
This venture is not a curious left field offering, for the good professor is an expert in linguistics, but it does have the feel of both a hobby and a hobby horse.
He may be pragmatic about the flexibility of language (hey – split those infinitives, dude) but he also devotes plenty of pages to hectoring and hair-splitting. He is clear in his own mind which adaptations deserve ire and which deserve commendation but his pick and mix approach doesn’t help the scribe towards a coherent view.
For that reason, the second section of this book – the rules – is the least effective. The first section – which analyses good writing in the “classic” style – is beautifully done.
His audience appears to be the ivory towered academician who wants to let loose an impenetrable subject on untutored eyes.
So his guidance consists of instructions to avoid abstraction, staleness and jargon. He says writers should create concrete mental images. Be bold, firm, active and conversational as opacity and is camouflage for insecurity.
Pinker tries to remain chipper and cheerful about English as a project run by the people, for the people.
But, underneath, one senses a seething, green ink pedant railing against a shape-shifting language that turns the very idea of this book into a game of pin the invisible tail on the fleeting donkey.