Those who write professionally, whether they are a student or in a career that focuses on writing, usually abide by some kind of style guide. While there are companies that have their own, there are also popular standard style guides. Other companies might just have parameters as broad as, "write professionally."
Style guides have their merits and can help writers improve in several areas, but no one style guide will have every answer. Some style guides will even have wrong answers because their advice won't fit specific writing tasks.
Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, correctly points to the fact that passive voice used to be an unforgivable academic sin. It was, at least, in the time period that several academic institutions are regrettably still stuck in. This isn't to criticize the institution, but some of the outdated traditions that it follows. If a student seeks to co-author peer reviewed studies, for example, knowing the flexibility of certain parameters and how to work with them is valuable.
"Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority," says Pinker, "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 standards of language as it stands aren't stagnant either, nor should they be. This is why I advised my colleagues in a presentation I gave a few months ago to not buy an APA style guide unless they absolutely needed a hard copy. If anything, this proves that language is not deteriorating with age.
Changes are being made to expand the mediums that writers can choose to utilize and be understood in. If wider accessibility to those mediums is regression when and if no harm is being done, the opposite does not appeal. Pinker criticizes the last edition of Elements of Style by Strunk and White (which is also well worth reading and very useful, so I wouldn't dismiss it due solely to criticisms by Pinker) in part because of their derogatory comments about young people and slang. This was around the period when "nerd," "dude," and "psyched" began appearing in common speech.
While some slang might be difficult to understand, Pinker's point is that changes in people often don't reflect the way the world changes. Further, just because there are changes in the world, specifically in language, this doesn't prove a decline. Apparently, similar complains have been made since the fifteenth century.
He cites William Caxton: "And certaynly our langage now vsed veryeth ferre from what whiche was vsed and spoken when I was borne" (Caxton, 1478 as cited in Pinker, 2014).
Some of my earlier pieces in Purposeful Prose have hidden messages in them, mostly the message that certain turns of phrase are both acceptable and professional, usually the gender neutral singular "they". I've also stated this outright in a previous post regarding the OED. It wasn't long ago that several publishers of dictionaries came forward to reinforce that this has been correct for centuries and is commonly used. However, some rhetors have taken it upon themselves to insist otherwise.
My point is that this is a common complaint despite the lack of change.
So, I think that Steven Pinker is right that we need a guide for writing in the twenty-first century, and I'm excited to begin a new series where I will be reviewing his. Thus far, I have been thoroughly enjoying his advice and criticisms, and I agree with most of them.
He does cite a client of his who spoke candidly about OkCupid profiles. "If you're trying to date a woman, I don't expect flowery Jane Austen prose. But aren't you trying to put your best foot forward?" (cited by Pinker, 2014). I will disagree with Pinker's client because the words "flowery" and "Jane Austen prose" shouldn't go together. I believe that Austen is very direct and that even when she does choose to ornament her language, there is always motive.
Good luck to anyone who attempts to integrate Jane Austen prose into their dating profile and congratulations to those who can do it successfully and tastefully.
Pinker's purpose in including that citation was that, as problematic as style guides can be, style and mechanics are important and sign of care in those who have a point to be made and seek to be understood. Style matters and most rhetors have a solid understanding of what effective writing looks like. They know how to curate their messages to the people that they're sending it to, but every writer can use different perspectives on style to grow and improve.
What makes writing objectively good?
Avid readers might empathize with a feeling of starting a text they thought they wouldn't like based on the concepts covered, but engaging because of the way the ideas are communicated. That's style.
"Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt" (Blow, 2008).
This quote immediately stands out when taken on it's own because it breaks a rule. While the writer could have said, "He made many mistakes, not just one," but this text (for anyone not immediately familiar with the origins of this quote) is based on reversal. It makes sense that the language would follow. Furthermore, "muddled" adds imagery and implies that there is a block to memory as opposed to confusion. Stating that a character is confused in a narrative could also imply a greater ease of access as opposed to "muddling." When something is muddled, even when some clarity is given, some usually remains.
Finally, "her braid lashing at him with contempt" can be deconstructed in multiple ways and some of them need further context. The reaction that "he" is taking in isn't coming from any word that the princess states. The reaction comes from her braid as her back is to him. It is the braid displaying the contempt, separated from the extent of emotions being experienced by the princess herself. It's not that the princess doesn't have interiority, it's that the princess isn't allowing "him" access to that interiority. Interestingly, while an audience can speculate as to her interiority and innermost thoughts, they don't have access to it either.
This quotation comes from a video game called Braid, developed in 2008 by Jonathan Blow of Number None.
Style is important.
Rhetors, regardless of the medium they are working in, recognize it.
Anyone who thinks can write.
Thank you to all of those who have sent their feedback and ideas for following Purposeful Prose posts and welcome to my newest series on Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style. In my articles on his work, I won't be "reading it so you don't have to." Rather, I aim to communicate with some of his ideas even if they're smaller details.
While my copy was an extremely considerate gift, a paperback is usually around $20 and I highly recommend it. Reviews cannot do it justice.
If you enjoy this article or any other, feel free to become a member of Purposeful Prose. As a member, you will be able to directly engage with my posts, talk to other members, and participate in my forum. If you have any suggestions as to what I should cover in future posts, feel free to contact me by any means available on this site.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Blow, Jonathan (2008). Braid (Microsoft Windows) [Video Game]. Number None.
Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century.