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by Terry Pederson

If you dreaded English class and still stumble over there, their and they’re, then Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” may not be the best use of your leisure time. But if you love the English language – if you approach it with reverence, if you delight in translating thoughts into words – then jump right in and enjoy the ride.

Subtitled “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” this book refutes the popular notion that the Internet is systematically destroying the language and our ability to clearly express ourselves on paper or screen. In fact, self-appointed scolds have been deploring the perceived decline in proper usage for centuries, as Pinker documents in a series of citations dating to the invention of the printing press.

Conversely, Pinker believes that evolving linguistic standards keep English vibrant and relevant. Far from an inflexible purist, Pinker – chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards juror – generally embraces this progression. He notes that 10,000 new words and word senses made it into the dictionary’s fifth edition, published in 2011.

Yet the real value of Pinker’s new book lies less in refereeing the incessant grammar wars than in probing the magic that permeates fine prose. All writers, he maintains, labor under the curse of knowledge: “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” Hence the impenetrable, jargon-filled corporate announcement or the pompous academic paper that defies understanding. Skillful writers know how to surmount the curse of knowledge.

Proper grammar, word choice and punctuation are potent weapons in this struggle, but Pinker’s opinion of what is acceptable today can seems arbitrary. Thus, he sanctions the increasingly common “comprised of,” which grates on the ear of many a careful writer who believes that the whole comprises the parts, while he nitpicks “parameter” as a synonym for “boundary.”

Such quibbles aside, Pinker is persuasive and writes exceedingly well, enlivening his text with references to that renowned linguistics expert, humorist Dave Barry, and colorful examples of syntactic strife, like a Yale student’s news release advertising “a faculty panel on sex in college with four professors.”

“The Sense of Style” is an entertaining romp with a contemporary message about the timeless gift of clear, graceful writing.

The events of the past few months have really been hard on the nation’s psyche. An uptick in mass murders and violence seems to have everyone on edge and debating what everything really means.

But our Anisfield-Wolf jury member Steven Pinker would argue that while current events are troubling and no less disturbing, we should know that life even a few hundred years ago would have been a lot different. In his latest book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Pinker discusses the peace that is seemingly invisible all around us.

In a recent interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, Pinker explains that perception isn’t always reality. “You turn on the news and it seems like there’s nothing but bombings and shootings and stabbings,” he says. “We’re better and better at covering violence…If your impression of how dangerous the world is comes from how many events you can remember, you’re going to think it’s getting worse and worse.” Check out the video above and let us know if you agree with Pinker’s thesis.

CLEVELAND, Ohio (April 12, 2011) – The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of the 76th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

They are:

  • Nicole Krauss, Great House, Fiction
  • Mary Helen Stefaniak, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, Fiction
  • David Eltis/David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Nonfiction
  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nonfiction
  • John Edgar Wideman, Lifetime Achievement

“The 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winners are notable for the unique way each author addresses the complex issues of race and cultural diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, who serves as jury chair. “The books and authors honored this year stand out, not only for their creative and wide-ranging approach to difficult subject matter, but also for their underlying faith in our shared humanity.”

“Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf created this book prize more than 75 years ago because of her conviction that the issue of race was the most critical dilemma facing the United States. It was her fervent desire to break down stereotypes and encourage civil discourse so that future generations would be more appreciative of human diversity,” said Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald B. Richard. “This prize remains a fitting testimony to the vision of a woman truly ahead of her time.”

About the Anisfield-Wolf Prize

The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored in Cleveland on September 15 at a ceremony hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker and Simon Schama also served on the jury. The Cleveland Foundation has administered the book awards since 1963, upon the death of its creator, Edith Anisfield Wolf. The Anisfield-Wolf prize remains the only juried American literary competition devoted to recognizing books that have made an important contribution to society’s understanding of racism and the diversity of human cultures.

About the Cleveland Foundation

Established in 1914, the Cleveland Foundation is the world’s first community foundation and the nation’s second-largest today, with assets of $1.87 billion and 2010 grants of nearly $85 million. The foundation improves the lives of Greater Clevelanders by building community endowment, addressing needs through grantmaking, and providing leadership on vital issues. Currently the foundation proactively directs two-thirds of its flexible grant dollars to the community’s greatest needs: economic transformation, public education reform, human services and youth development, neighborhoods, and arts advancement.

For more information on the Cleveland Foundation, visit