Yet another how-to book on writing? Indeed, but this is one of the best to come along in many years, a model of intelligent signposting and syntactical comportment.
It’s a strange thing, but many guidebooks on writing are written by people who’ve written only books on how to write. Not so Pinker’s. Though being a linguist, as he is, doesn’t make a writer any more than putting air in an airplane wheel makes a pilot, he’s also got numerous best-selling books (e.g., The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011, etc.) behind him—and even that doesn’t make him an expert, so we’re lucky that, like fellow manual writer Stephen King, he’s blessed with common sense. As a linguist, Pinker inclines to descriptivism but doesn’t rule out prescriptivism entirely. “The primary lifeline between an incoming sentence and a reader’s web of knowledge is the topic,” he writes, carefully separating the different senses of the term “topic” in the realms of linguistics and grammar before discussing such common-sensical things as orderly transitions, logical coordination and pronoun/antecedent agreement. The author insists that any writer must be an “avid” reader, and he takes many of his examples from current literature to support pronouncements such as, “But if the subject matter is unfamiliar and has many parts, and if the writer doesn’t set the reader up by focusing on one of those parts as a fact worth taking seriously, the reader may not know what he should no longer be thinking.” Allowing for the “the reader/he” convention, there’s nothing objectionable to that observation or, indeed, to most of the book, even if Pinker courts anarchy by allowing the distinction between “less” and “fewer” to collapse.
Fatter and more complex than Strunk and White, and some of the more technical arguments may make this a tough sell on the first-year comp front. Still, Pinker’s vade mecum is a worthy addition to any writer’s library.