Bacon, Nora. “Review Essay: Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to Style.” College Composition and Communication 67.2 (December 2015): 290-303.
In this book review, Bacon reviews two recent popular style manuals: Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing and Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Bacon points out the strengths and flaws of both books, ultimately arguing that although both Sword and Pinker bring important interdisciplinary perspectives to teaching style, neither of them (but particularly Pinker) draw on or engage thoroughly enough in the research and theories of composition studies. Bacon calls for more public scholarship by compositionists on writing and style, pointing out that in its absence, other scholars and fields have taken our place.
Bacon uses Patrick Hartwell’s taxonomy of grammars from his 1985 article to construct a parallel taxonomy of style: style 1 (individual style), style 2 (house style), style 3 (usage), style 4 (plain style), style 5 (elaborated style.) She uses this taxonomy to analyze the arguments and advice promoted in both Sword’s and Pinker’s books.
Sword’s book is written to academics about academic prose, and one of Sword’s central arguments is that academics don’t need to write in a boring, stiff style. Sword conducted an empirical study of academic writing in 10 disciplines, and she uses her analysis of the data (over 1000 journal articles) to suggest specific strategies academic writers can use to write better, more reader-friendly and engaging prose.
Pinker’s book is written from the perspective of a cognitive scientist and a linguist, and Bacon points out the main flaw that she sees in it: Pinker’s arguments are detached from composition studies and seem to assume that a person who understands grammar will be a better writer. Bacon disagrees and argues that the relationship between knowing linguistics and sentence structure and being able to write with a clear, dynamic style is complicated. Describing language is different than using it.
“Moving too hastily from linguistics to writing, Pinker makes the mistake that generations of back-to-basics school reformers have made, imagining that the way to improve writers’ sentences is to teach them grammar. Composition scholars know that the relationship between an understanding of grammar and an ability to write healthy sentences is not so simple” (300).
“Gaining metalinguistic knowledge is one thing; learning to write well is another. Confusing the two leads to misguided instruction” (301).
“In classrooms and books, we talk about the rules of usage, the virtues of plain style, and the pleasures of the elaborated style in the hope that the discussion will help writers achieve more effective individual styles” (292).