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A handy resource for researchers to understand the different styles of writing

Yateendra Joshi | Oct 6, 2015 | 8,076 views
A sensible guide to writing

Authors are often recommended one form of style over another – no comma over comma in punctuating citations, for example, or using a space over using a comma as a thousands separator – but conceding all too often that these are matters of style. However, to most authors, or to readers for that matter, style means something quite different.

In Scientific Information Transfer: The Editor's RoleCochran and Hill1 describe four kinds of style, adding that people do not always mean the same thing when they talk about style. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century2, Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist and cognitive scientist, sets out to "discriminate between the principles that improve the quality of prose and the superstitions, fetishes, shibboleths, and initiation ordeals that have been passed down in the traditions of usage."

As befits a scientist, Pinker’s advice is rooted in firm evidence. He realizes that today’s writers demand reasons for any advice and reassures us that now such reasons and evidence are available. "We have a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading: the waxing and waning of memory load as readers comprehend a passage, the incrementing of their knowledge as they come to grasp its meaning, the blind alleys that can lead them astray."

Pinker maintains that good writing comes from good reading and illustrates this approach of "reverse engineering’ good prose by a detailed analysis of a few selected excerpts of good prose." Incidentally, Pinker also favours the serial comma (the comma that comes before the final and in a list of three or more items) and the British preference for placing quotations marks depending on the sense.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century is a useful resource for authors looking to understand the different styles of writing.

[1] Cochran W and Hill M. 1978. Four kinds of style, pp. 341–343 in Scientific Information Transfer: the editor’s Role, edited by M Balaban. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: D Reidel. 686 pp. [Proceedings of the First International Conference of Scientific Editors, Jerusalem, 24–29 April 1977]

[2] Pinker S. 2014. The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. London: Allen Lane (Penguins). 368 pp.


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