Writing needs to make sense.
Sometimes, whether intentional or otherwise, a sentence that seems to have one meaning can turn into a joke with several. You might understand that when I say "several," I mean "several meanings." I didn't need to make further clarification, but some people do. The way that we use deceptive (short words that we know the meaning of intuitively that are easy to skip over or ignore) or implied words have a significant impact on the way that ideas are presented and meant.
Imagine if I had said "the" (definite) joke rather than "a" (indefinite) joke. If I'd said "the" joke, it would be unclear as to which joke I'd meant. I didn't introduce any jokes, so that wouldn't make sense.
Here's one example that Steven Pinker uses to illustrate his point on the effects and further impact of a big part of what creates written context: "After Governor Baldwin watched the lion perform, he was taken to Main Street and fed 25 pounds of raw meat in front of the Cross Keys Theater."
This time, the culprit is the pronoun. It wouldn't have been a crime to replace "he" with "the lion." Pinker even recommends mostly ignoring the unspoken rule about referring to things the same way twice. The problem is that "lion" and "he" are too close together. Knowledge of style, in this case, is very intuitive.
Referring to things the same way several times in close proximity is monotonous, and that makes the information given difficult to retain. By carefully avoiding the pitfall of straying away from a topic, its importance would be ignored as well.
Topics are necessary, so an exercise that Pinker performed on one of his examples is to parse out each sentence based on its relevance to the subject. He'd put parts of sentences [representing the whole] that pertained to the subject of the excerpt on one side of the page in list form. Then, he put parts of sentences that didn't relate to the topic on the other half. The goal was to have more on the left side in terms of quantity, but to have enough on the right side to take the topic where it needed to be.
I won't perform the exact analysis that Pinker performs on his excerpt, and certainly not to that extent, but I've chosen a passage that exemplifies creative and coherent writing with a clear and definite message.
"Animals and plants provide us with life-saving drugs and food, they pollinate crops and provide important ingredients or many industrial processes. Ironically, it is often not the big and beautiful creatures, but the ugly and less dramatic ones, that we need most.
Even so, the loss of a few species may seem irrelevant compared to major environmental problems such as global warming or the destruction of the ozone layer. But while nature has considerable resilience, there is a limit to how far that resilience can be stretched. No one knows how close to the limit we are getting. The darker it gets, the faster we're driving.
There is one last reason for caring, and I believe that no other is necessary. It is certainly the reason why so many people have devoted their lives to protecting the likes of rhinos, parakeets, kakapos, and dolphins. And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them" (Adams, 1989).
Beginning with the first sentence, we already see that the subject is about the importance of animals and plants to our existence and way of life. Since we've already been introduced to our topic of plants and animals, we are certain as to what "they" in the second half of the sentence refers to.
"They pollinate crops and provide important ingredients..." Significantly, the writer doesn't need to identify what those ingredients are. They're important and they're life-saving, but they're not the focus of the passage. The writer needs to hold our focus on animals and plants, carrying that to the next sentence. "Ironically, it is often...the ugly and less dramatic ones, that we need most." After introducing the topic of animals and plants, Adams is aware that there are implicit biases held towards animal and plant life that comply with standards of beauty or otherwise encourage human engagement.
Notably, we don't introduce the ugly and less dramatic until the last half of the sentence and suspense is held with the abstract, "it is often." This is a rule break. "It" doesn't point to anything physical, but helps to maintain consistency of tone more effectively than a direct statement that might begin with "the ugly and less dramatic."
Then, the author uses some well-placed passive voice, illustrating comparisons one might draw between loss of species and other environmental issues that are also important. The implication here is that the significance of each concern doesn't have to be measured against others to hold importance. The last two sentences in the paragraph have different subjects individually.
"No one knows how close to the limit we're getting. The darker it gets, the faster we drive." The final sentence can be read with both optimism and pessimism, referring back to "no one knows." By "the limit," what we mean is the limit of resilience, but the subject of both sentences appear to be the unspoken unknown.
"There is one last reason for caring," when the author did not need to introduce what they were saying as reasons for caring. "The world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them." The author makes appeals to all forms of logic. For those whose focus is on money and energy, the world would be poorer. For those whose focus is on logic, the world would be darker. For those who are focused on self-fulfillment, the world would be lonelier. Having one mindset over another isn't an inherent character flaw. That doesn't need to be said. What needs to be said is that we need to protect our natural world.
This excerpt is from Last Chance to See, co-authored by Douglas Adams (best known for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Mark Carwardine (wildlife photographer and zoologist). This book was part of a 20-year conservation project in which they traveled around the world to visit and bring greater awareness to species on the verge of extinction.
A big thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on my Purposeful Prose pieces thus far!
This is a part of an ongoing series in conversation with The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. For all of his insight and wit or just to follow along, I highly recommend buying a copy of this book. If you would like to see more content outside of weekly blog posts, I recommend following the Purposeful Prose LinkedIn page where there will be a new article this weekend on the two I's of using source material.
Purposeful Prose site members will be the first to be notified when new articles are published and will be able to interact with my posts and on my forum. If you have any suggestions as to what I should cover in the future, please don't hesitate to send me a message! The answer to your question could make it into a future post.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Adams, D., & Carwardine, M. (1992). Last Chance to See (Illustrated ed.). Ballantine Books.
Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. Viking