This hunger for coherence has important implications. As Pinker shows, the letter sequence M-D-P-H-D-R-S-V-P-C-E-O-I-H-O-P is difficult to remember, though not when chunked as MD-PHD-RSVP-CEO-IHOP. Each chunk contains subsets of meaning; if these unfold coherently, the reader makes sense of them; complexity is rendered into manageable bits. That helps explain how a memory expert dazzles 100 audience members by recalling their names, and it’s what makes even a detailed text with a clear hierarchical structure easy for the reader to assimilate: “At any level of granularity, from clauses to chapters, the passage can be represented in the reader’s mind as a single chunk, and the reader never has to juggle more than a few chunks at a time as he figures out how they are related.”
It’s fascinating to learn the science that underlies the stylistic techniques good writers seem to intuit—for example, a list is most easily grasped if the bulkiest item comes at the end (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ; or The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle; or Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!). “Light-before-heavy is one of the oldest principles in linguistics,” Pinker writes, “having been discovered in the fourth century BCE by the Sanskrit grammarian Pānini.” Why? Because the mind must hold the early items in suspension before incorporating the final one, and it’s easier to retain simple things than more complex elements.
From a review of Steven Pinker's upcoming book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. I have a vast collection of usage books, and I pre-ordered this to add to my collection, to sit alongside favorites like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (of course) and one of my favorite books of all time, Garner's Modern American Usage.
“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,” Pinker tells us. (This explains why white Econoline van is preferable to getaway car; and a mound of flowers, balloons, and teddy bears is more effective than impromptu roadside memorial.) Or this: “It’s good for a writer to work with the ongoing newsreel in readers’ minds and describe events in chronological order.”He showered and put on his new suit before he went to dinner is easier to understand than He went to dinner after he showered and put on his new suit. Similarly, positive statements are more readily grasped than negative ones, and so negation should not be used for no good reason. (That’s a joke.) And my favourite Pinkerism of all, the undisputed first rule of worthwhile prose: “a writer has to have both something to talk about (a topic) and something to say (the point).” Are you listening, bloggers of the world?