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The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Steven Pinker

Top 10 Best Quotes

“Richard Feynman once wrote, “If you ever hear yourself saying, ‘I think I understand this,’ that means you don’t.”

“As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days.”

“The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”

“It takes cognitive toil and literary dexterity to pare an argument to its essentials, narrate it in an orderly sequence, and illustrate it with analogies that are both familiar and accurate.”

“Style still matters, for at least three reasons. First, it ensures that writers will get their message across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose. When the effort fails, the result can be calamitous-as Strunk and White put it, "death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram." Governments and corporations have found that small improvements in clarity can prevent vast amounts of error, frustration, and waste, and many countries have recently made clear language the law of the land. Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily. Here is how one technology executive explains why he rejects job applications filled with errors of grammar and punctuation: "If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it's, then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with." And if that isn't enough to get you to brush up your prose, consider the discovery of the dating site OkCupid that sloppy grammar and spelling in a profile are "huge turn-offs." As one client said, "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?" Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life's greatest pleasures. And as we shall see in the first chapter, this thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.”

“In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

“we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”

“Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”

“A writer, like a cinematographer, manipulates the viewer’s perspective on an ongoing story, with the verbal equivalent of camera angles and quick cuts.”

“Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images,”

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