A few weeks before the start of spring semester this year, the department asked if I could rearrange my schedule to accommodate a mid-afternoon course on grammar and style. Partly because I’m a nice person who likes to be helpful but mostly because I’m a confessed grammar nerd who was geeking out at the opportunity, I said yes.
But it didn’t leave me much time to plan the syllabus, and the first decision was the most crucial: what text to use.
A colleague had mentioned Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to me months before, so I pulled it off my shelf along with a couple of textbooks and hurried to weigh out the pros and cons of each.
The awful truth about most grammar textbooks is that they try to teach style without much flair. Technical definitions and lifeless examples are more soporific than inspiring. Some creep toward being interesting by dissecting sentences from famous writers, but the analysis is usually dry. I’ve even heard a textbook author admit this, blaming the approval process for sucking all humor and vulnerability out of the prose.
Pinker doesn’t believe in trite sentences. He believes, like I do, that to teach someone how to write, you better write well enough to show them what good writing looks like.
My gut said Pinker was the way to go.
Still, using his book was a gamble. Would students catch the nuances? Would they totally miss many of the concepts if the key words weren’t bolded in textbook format? Would his wide vocabulary slow them down too much? Did students need explicit breakdowns instead?
But I had qualms with textbooks’ breakdowns too. So often style books make guidelines sound like firm rules, and I wanted to show my students that real writers select from a vast repertoire of options, sometimes even breaking the “rules” based on the effect they’re going for. Pinker, too, advocates that there are times and places for most every construction, even vilified ones like passive voice, depending on the purpose of the writing. He admits when he simply dislikes a structure that other professional writers use, and he offers readers freedom to choose their own way.
A course text is like a second instructor, and I wanted one I’d get along with. Pinker got the job.
My class was small—just six students at first, narrowing down to five by the end. We spent our 80-minute periods playing with language, from examining phonetic emphasis letter by letter to restructuring full essays. We experimented with semicolon vs colon vs em dash vs comma/conjunction vs period between clauses, comparing the different tones. We rearranged phrases on card stock to create nonsense sentences that made syntax click. It was a blast for me, and with only a handful of students it was easy to tell they loved it too.
By the last month of the semester, I knew the in-person aspect had been a success, but I wondered about the part I hadn’t seen. How had they fared with Pinker as their private tutor?
On the final day of class, I asked them to stand up and describe how the course had impacted them. All of them said how much it had flipped their expectations. Some had come thinking they already knew grammar and were shocked by how much more there was to comprehend. Others had anticipated a boring class, but it had become their favorite.
Also, they confessed how much they’d learned from Pinker.
One woman told us that she hated reading. She’d gone through all her school years without reading much of anything ever, but she loved to write. When I had announced at the beginning of the semester that reading the kinds of things you want to write is crucial to understanding the mechanics of writing, she had blown it off, still intending to coast through the class without reading the book.
But luckily she peeked at Pinker’s first page, even if her intention was to skim it and be done:
“Education is an admirable thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” In dark moments while writing this book, I sometimes feared that Wilde might be right. When I polled some accomplished writers about which style manuals they had consulted during their apprenticeships, the most common answer I got was “none.” Writing, they said, just came naturally to them.
I’d be the last to doubt that good writers are blessed with an innate dose of fluency with syntax and memory for words. But no one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere.
That somewhere is the writing of others. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive “ear” of a skilled writer—the tacit sense of style which every honest stylebook, echoing Wilde, confesses cannot be explicitly taught.
Then this student said something that made my teacher heart burst with happiness: “Guess what? That convinced me to read the whole book. And I’m so glad I did.”
If Steven Pinker had been in the room, I would’ve given him a high five.