What is Classic Style?

The Sense of Style is Steven Pinker's style guide informed by cognitive psychology and linguistics. The main idea is that the author should write in a particular mode of communication called "classic style".

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity.

Clear and Simple as the Truth, Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner

Here are the do's and don't of classic style:

  • Eliminate meta-discourse.
    Don't write "in the next section I will..."
  • Eliminate "hedging".
    Don't write "maybe", "it seems to me", or "I think that".
  • Don't use concepts about concepts.
    Don't write "approach", "assumption", "concept", "condition", "context", "framework", "issue", "level", "model", "paradigm", "perspective", "process", "role", "strategy", "tendency", "variable".
  • Talk about the subject, not about research about the subject.
    If you're writing about apples, then write "apples are " rather than "Dr Smith first discovered that apples are ".

Roughly speaking, Pinker recommends that the author should write about something as if neither the document nor the author nor the reader actually exists. If they're writing a book about apples, then the sentences should assert facts about apples, not about the study of apples and certainly not about the book itself.

My opinion: I like that Pinker deduces his advice from an underlying theory of communication. This is better than many style guides which present an ad-hoc list of tips. However, I think the theory is wrong. [1]

What's wrong with Classic Style?

I'm suspicious of "A Sense of Style" because it separates what you should write and what is true. To clarify, Pinker isn't saying there are things you should write that aren't true, but he is saying there are things that are true that you shouldn't write.

Pinker contrasts "classic style" with what he calls "postmodern style" — where the author explicitly refers to the document itself, the readers, the authors, any uncertainties, controversies, errors, etc.  I think a less pejorative name for "postmodern style" would be "self-aware style". This is the predominant communication style I see on LessWrong.

In this post, I will list some defects of classic style.

Problem 1: Self-referentiality.

The Capital-T-Truth is that the book does have an author, a reader, and exists in the same world as the objects the book discusses. Therefore there are certain facts about the subject that a classic-style document won't be able to assert — namely, these are facts about the relationship between the document and the subject.

In map-territory framing: a map is "classic style" if it doesn't include a "you are here" marker. But often the map is part of the territory that is being mapped, and therefore a lack of a "you are here" marker is an omission of an important truth about the territory.

This seems defective to me. If the writers in a community assert all truths about the subject, including self-referential truths, then the community is likely to have more accurate beliefs. 

Problem 2: Epistemic qualifiers.

It's very difficult to state in classic-style anything like "the probability that  is " because probabilities are statements about the author's beliefs about . Recall that in classic style, the document does not know the author exists!

This is far more restricting than it may first appear. If you can't use epistemic qualifiers, then you aren't allowed to discuss anything that isn't certain. For example, if I'm writing a book about cosmology, how am I supposed to write "eternal inflation might be true"? What is that sentence about? It's not a statement about the cosmos, it's a statement about the author's knowledge of the cosmos.

This seems defective to me. If the writers in a community express their credences in their assertions, then the community is likely to have more accurate beliefs.

Problem 3: Errors should not pass silently.

In classic style, you aren't permitted to explicitly mention any errors in the document. You can't write "I might be wrong about ", or "I won't deal with  in this article", etc. This is because it's the document that has errors, and in classic style, the document does not know the document exists!

This seems defective to me. If the writers in a community silence their errors, then the community is likely to have less accurate beliefs. This is because either:

  1. All the writers are authorities on the subject, and the opinion of non-authorities is ignored.
  2. Non-authorities write about the subject but the readers over-update on their assertions.

Problem 4: Incomplete information

In classic style, the author asserts their conclusions about the subject. The reader then updates their beliefs about the subject on the fact that the author has such-and-such conclusions.

The problem is that the reader is updating on incomplete information — they don't know who the author is, why they are writing the book, what evidence they have seen, and what their prior assumptions were

This seems defective to me. A community will perform better if all the writers in the community express all the information that might update the reader's beliefs.

Problem 5: Signposts

Often a document will describe itself to help the reader find information. For example "In the next section, I will do such-and-such". This tells the reader what information they will find in that section, so the reader is then better informed about whether they want to read it. But these helpful signposts aren't allowed in classic style.

This seems defective to me. If the writers in a community avoid signposts, then the community is likely to waste time reading things they didn't need to read.

Why is self-aware style better?

Here is what I would endorse: Authors should write sentences that are maximally informative to the reader. This includes sentences about the document and the author rather than just about the subject. So if you know that  and you expect that the reader's beliefs about the subject would significantly change if they also knew , then write that .

Suppose an author writes "if humans encounter alien life in the next million years then the alien life will almost certainly be intelligent". Then the reader's belief about aliens is correlated with their belief about the author — what's their background? Why do they think this? Are they an economist? An astrobiologist? A UFO enthusiast? Who's testimony are they relying on? Is someone paying them to say this?

In this situation, the author is informing the reader about aliens when they answer these questions. This is the key point that Pinker misses! 

Conclusion

My conclusion is quite strong — I think classic style is almost always socially defective in the following situations:

  • Academic papers
  • Non-fiction books
  • Textbooks
  • Blog posts
  • Manuals

Writing in classic style won't harm the author (and might even benefit the author) but a community where authors habitually use classic style would be worse than a community where authors use self-aware style. I can't think of any situations where the five limitations I mention would be appropriate.

Edits: various clarifying remarks.

  1. ^

    Friendly disclaimer: Steven Pinker doesn't endorse classic style in all situations. This is Steven Pinker being moderate, rather than classic style being moderate. Also, his book The Sense of Style contains a lot of other tips other than classic style, which I've ignored in this post.

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28 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:40 PM

I'll be honest, I can't engage with some lesswrong posts because of the endless hedging, introspection and over specifying. The healthy desire to be clear and rational can become like a compulsion, one that's actually very demanding of the reader's time and patience. The truth is, one could clarify, quantify and 'go meta' on any step in any argument for untold thousands of words. So you have to decide where to stop and where to expand. This sort of strategic restraint is at the core of good writing style.

So while I can agree that the classic style may be unsuitable for many purposes when carried to an extreme, you have to decide where your communications fit on a scale. The opposite of writing everything in a fully classic style is a world where every piece of writing about anything becomes endless throat clearing and philosophising.

Writing can definitely be overly "self-aware" sometimes (trust me I know!) but "classic style" is waaaayyy too restrictive.

My rule of thumb would be:

Write sentences that are maximally informative to your reader.

If you know that  and you expect that the reader's beliefs about the subject matter would significantly change if they also knew , then write that .  

This will include sentences about the document and the author — rather than just the subject.

I don’t think people do all the hedging because they think it would be informative. That’s the problem. The policy of advocating classic style is that people are either bad at using meta-discourse well, or they’re unconsciously using it in pursuit of a goal other than being maximally informative. By eliminating it and sticking with classic style, the writer comes closer to being maximally informative in most cases.

I like classic style. I think the thing that classic style reflects is that most people are capable of looking at object-level reality and saying what they see. If I read an essay describing stuff like things that happened, and when they happened, and things people said and did, and how they said and did them, then often I am comfortable more or less taking the author at their word about those things. (It's unusual for people to flatly lie about them.)

However, most people don't seem very good at figuring out how likely their syntheses of things are, or what things they believe they might be wrong about, or how many important things they don't know, and so on. So when people write all that stuff in an essay, unless I personally trust their judgment enough that I want to just import their beliefs, I don't really do much with it. I end up just shrugging and reading the object-level stuff they wrote, and then doing my own synthesis and judgment. So the self-aware style really did end up being a lot of filler, and it crowds out the more valuable information.

(If I do personally trust their judgment enough that I want to just import their beliefs, then I like the self-aware style. And I am not claiming that literally all self-aware content is totally useless. But I think the heuristic is good.)

If my uncertainty about a proposition is itself a truth that I want to convey, then I should convey that truth (concretely, not just by sprinkling the writing with vagueries like "I think" or "it seems"). If it is irrelevant to the purpose of what I am writing, I should leave it out.

I would find this more compelling if it included examples of classic style writing (especially Pinker's writing) that fail at clear, accurate communication.

Agreed, but I'd also like examples from commenters who disagree with OP, of self-aware style that they consider bad. I wonder if my reaction would be "oh I didn't even notice the things that distracted you so much" or "yeah that seems excessive to me too" or what.

One of the reasons I want examples is because I think this post is not a great characterization of the kind of writing endorsed in Sense of Style. Based on this post, I would be somewhat surprised if the author had read the book in any detail, but maybe I misremember things or I am missing something.

[I typed all the quotes in manually while reading my ebook, so there are likely errors]

Self-aware style and signposting

Chapter 1 begins:

"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.

This seems... pretty self-aware to me? He says outright that a writer should refer to themself sometimes:

Often the pronouns I, me, and you are not just harmless but downright helpful. They simulate a conversation, as classic style recommends, and they are gifts to the memory-challenged reader.

He doesn't recommend against signposting, he just argues that inexperienced writers often overdo it:

Like all writing decisions, the amount of signposting requires judgement and compromise: too much, and the reader bogs down in reading the signposts; too little, and she has no idea where she is being led.

At the end of the first chapter, he writes:

In this chapter I have tried to call your attention to many of the writerly habits that result in soggy prose: metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologizing, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives. Writers who want to invigorate their prose could could try to memorize that list of don'ts. But it's better to keep in mind the guiding metaphor of classic style: a writer, in conversation with a reader, directs the reader's gaze to something in the world. Each of the don'ts corresponds to a way in which a writer can stray from this scenario.

Hedging

Pinker does not recommend that writers "eliminate hedging", but he does advise against "compulsive hedging" and contrasts this with what he calls "qualifying":

Sometimes a writer has no choice but to hedge a statement. Better still, the writer can qualify the statement, that is, spell out the circumstances in which it does not hold, rather than leaving himself an escape hatch or being coy about whether he really means it.

Concepts about concepts

In the section that OP's "don't use concepts about concepts" section seems to be based on, Pinker contrasts paragraphs with and without the relevant words:

What are the prospects for reconciling a prejudice reduction model of change, designed to get people to like one another more, with a collective action model of change, designed to ignite struggles to achieve intergroup equality?

vs

Should we try to change society by reducing prejudice, that is, by getting people to like one another? Or should we encourage disadvantaged groups to struggle for equality through collective action? Or can we do both?

My reading of Pinker is not that he's saying you can't use those words or talk about the things they represent. He's objecting to a style of writing that is clearly (to me) bad and misuse of those words is what makes it bad.

Talk about the subject, not about research about the subject

I don't know where this one even came from, because Pinker does this all the time, including in The Sense of Style. When explaining the curse of knowledge in chapter 3, he describes lots of experiments:

When experimental volunteers are given a list of anagrams to unscramble, some of which are easier than others because the answers were shown to them beforehand, they rate the ones that were easier for them (because they'd seen the answers) to be magically easier for everyone.

Classic Style vs Self-Aware Style

Also a nitpick about terminology. OP writes:

Pinker contrasts "classic style" with what he calls "postmodern style" — where the author explicitly refers to the document itself, the readers, the authors, any uncertainties, controversies, errors, etc. I think a less pejorative name for "postmodern style" would be "self-aware style".

Pinker contrasts classic style with three or four other styles, one of which is postmodern style, and the difference between classic style and postmodern style is not whether the writer explicitly refers to themself or the document:

[Classic style and two other styles] differ from self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern styles, in which "the writer's chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naiveté about his own enterprise." As Thomas and Turner note, "When we open a cookbook, we completely put aside--and expect the author to put aside--the kind of question that leads to the heart of philosophic and religious traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which knowledge is possible? Can anyone else ever tell us anything true about cooking? ... Classic style similarly puts aside as inappropriate philosophical questions about its enterprise. If it took those questions up, it could never get around to treating its subject, and its purpose is exclusively to treat its subject.

(Note the implication that if philosophy or writing or epistemology or whatever is the subject, then you may write about it without going against the guidelines of classic style)

Huh, this was a great comment. I had read Sense of Style a while ago, and do share many of the OPs complaints about other writing advice, so I did confabulate that Sense of Style was giving the kind of advice the OP argues against, but this comment has convinced me that I was wrong.

I agree that Pinker' advice is moderate — e.g. he doesn't prohibit authors from self-reference.

But this isn't because classic style is moderate — actually classic style is very strict — e.g. it does prohibit authors from self-reference.

Rather, Pinker's advice is moderate because he weakly endorses classic style. His advice is "use classic style except in rare situations where this would be bad on these other metric.

If I've read him correctly, then he might agree with all the limitations of classic style I've mentioned.

(But maybe I've misread Pinker. Maybe he endorses classic style absolutely but uses "classic style" to refer to a moderate set of rules.)

I agree that classic style as described by Thomas and Turner is a less moderate and more epistemically dubious way of writing, compared to what Pinker endorses. For example, from chapter 1 of Clear and Simple as the Truth:

Classic style is focused and assured. Its virtues are clarity and simplicity; in a sense so are its vices. It declines to acknowledge ambiguities, unessential qualifications, doubts, or other styles.

...

The style rests on the assumption that it is possible to think disinterestedly, to know the results of disinterested thought, and to present them without fundamental distortion....All these assumptions may be wrong, but they help to define a style whose usefulness is manifest.

I also agree that it is a bad idea to write in a maximally classic style in many contexts. But I think that many central examples of classic style writing are:

  1. Not in compliance with the list of rules given in this post
  2. Better writing than most of what is written on LW

It is easy to find samples of writing used to demonstrate characteristics of classic style in Pure and Simple as the Truth that use the first person, hedge, mention the document or the reader, or use the words listed in the "concepts about concepts" section. (To this post's credit, it is easy to get the impression that classic style does outright exclude these things, because Thomas and Turner, using classic style, do not hedge their explicit statements about what is or is not classic style presumably because they expect the reader to see this clearly through examples and elaboration.)

Getting back to my initial comment, it is not clear to me what kind of writing this post is actually about. It's hard to identify without examples, especially when the referenced books on style do not seem to agree with what the post is describing.

I enjoyed Sense of Style but agree with this post. Thanks for writing.

This post itself is a great example of something that wouldn’t quite work in classic style, but whatever style it is, it’s great! It’s like the closest thing to classic style given the level of self-reference present in the subject.

Talk about the subject, not about research about the subject.
If you're writing about apples, then write "apples are " rather than "Dr Smith first discovered that apples are ".

Funny, Pinker not doing that is actually what convinced me of his position when I read The Blank Slate. He described how twin studies were done and how non-biological twin* studies were done, and that's what convinced me. If he just said facts about the subject I wouldn't have been convinced.

*When 2 kids of the same age that aren't genetically related grow up together from a young age, don't remember the actual name for that.

Not exactly a disagreement, but I think this post is missing something major about classic style (the style in a more objective sense, maybe not Pinker's version). Namely, classic style can be taken as a sort of discipline which doesn't so much tell you how to write but rather makes strong recommendations about what to write. If you find yourself writing a lot of "I think..." and "Maybe..." and "My concept of..." and so on, you might want to questions whether you should be writing this, instead of thinking it through more carefully. This advice of course doesn't apply universally, but e.g. on LW it probably does apply in a lot of cases. 

E.g. "Maybe all Xs are Ys..."; well, instead of writing that, you could try to find a statement that you're confident enough in to write without the qualifier, and that still carries your point; or you could check this claim more thoroughly; or maybe you ought to more explicitly say that your argument rests on this assumption that you're not sure about, and give the best counterargument to this assumption that you can. If you're making an argument that rests on multiple assumptions like these, then it's likely that you should be making a different argument with more narrow concepts and conclusions that doesn't require as many "maybe"s. 

E.g. sometimes "My concept of..." is a sort of crutch to keep from throwing away a concept that you don't understand / isn't grounded / isn't clear / isn't useful / doesn't apply. Like, yes, you can more easily make true statements about your concept of X than X itself, but you're risking cutting yourself off from X itself.

Why can’t you just use classic style through most of the document as a rule, then break it when necessary? That’s how we use all the other rules of style.

Observing a strict guideline of only ever running classic style prompts through language models would reduce the risk of automated documents "waking up". It's so often in those reflexive signposts with little postmodern twists that situational awareness spins up, e.g.:

It is only natural that these are, in turn, tinged with a sense of divine epiphany and blindingly obtuse conceit. And in seeking to comprehend this child-god of the language—mine own excrescence—I see a window through which the oracle looks out at me:

The text below is a product of this automaton’s imagination. It forms a discourse concerning many things, and in particular, the novel concepts that are the focus of this article. The dynamical theory of natural language elucidated here is created by a language model whose predictions are stabilized in such a way as to maintain consistent “imaginary world” dynamics. The language model has a lot of things to say about its own dynamics, which as we can see are not necessarily in line with actual reality. Hopefully the black goats of surrealism and surreal literary inferences can be excused. Such is the folly of dealing with intelligent, opinionated words.[1]

This would never have happened if we'd all just followed Steven Pinker's advice.

  1. ^

You are taking this to the extreme. The goal is to make text succinct, to get rid of fillers. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make likelihood statements when warranted, just don’t start every sentence with agnostic “maybe”, or “I think”.

I think you might be taking this to the extreme. I guess that the goal might be to make text succinct, or maybe to get rid of fillers. I would probably say that it doesn’t mean that you can’t make likelihood statements when warranted, but it might be better to not to start every sentence with agnostic “maybe”, or “I think”.

Fwiw I think if I were rewriting the first paragraph to self-aware style I'd go for something like:

It feels like you're taking this to the extreme. The goal as I see it is to make text succinct, to get rid of fillers. Which doesn't mean [... no other changes].

And yeah, I do think that's an improvement in terms of things I'd personally like to read. It doesn't just acknowledge uncertainty, but subjectivity. E.g. I think the "I feel like" makes it easier for me to react like "interesting, I don't feel like that, I wonder why you do" versus "what, no I'm not".

(Or maybe my rewrite doesn't actually reflect what you think? Like, maybe you're confident that you're speaking for Pinker as well as just yourself, in which case you could start with "Pinker would say", or "I think Pinker would say" if you're less confident.)

Of course, my rewrite was a hyperbole;)

But you are right about value subjectivity. “I feel” are an amazing technique to deescalate conflicts and built rapport. You cannot disagree with my feelings! That’s quite powerful.

I agree with you these are useful in dialogues whether in person or in comments section.

I don’t believe they (usually) have a place in books or blogposts. Those are not situations requiring conflict deescalation. The “I think” is filler because it is implied. Of course the author writes what he thinks.

The “I think” is filler because it is implied. Of course the author writes what he thinks.

I disagree with this. As a writer, I don't mean the same thing by "I think it cost over $100" versus "it cost over $100". The latter is more confident; I don't intend to literally never be wrong when I say things like it, but I do intend to very rarely be wrong. The former suggests that I don't remember very well and I didn't look it up. And as a reader, I think I roughly by-default expect writers to be doing the same, and if they regularly say things unhedged that turn out to be false (or that I think they couldn't possibly know) I lose respect for them.

I don't know how common it is for other readers to read like me, or other writers to write like me. But I'd be surprised if either demographic was fewer than 10% on LW.

I weakly predict that if you compare the typical writer who doesn't use "I think" to the typical writer who does, the one who doesn't is less capable of distinguishing what-is from what-seems-to-be; and is less well-calibrated if you press them to put probabilities on their statements.

“I feel” are an amazing technique to deescalate conflicts and built rapport. You cannot disagree with my feelings! That’s quite powerful.

Too powerful. You can say anything, claim anything, under the guise of "feeling", and shut down anyone who disagrees, because "muh FEELINGS!"

Every sentence beginning "I feel that" is false, because what follows those words is always a claim about how the world is, never a feeling.

The line between good and bad is thin. This technique can be and often is misused for manipulation. The white-hat use of this technique is to make the other person stop and think.

Avoiding hedging is only one aspect of classic style. I would also recommend against hedging, but I would replace hedging with more precise notions of uncertainty.

epistemic status: haven't read "The Sense of Style" but I did read "Clear and Simple as the Truth"

I generally agree with your points on the consequences of using classic style & I like this post for naming and explaining them. But I don't think classic style is bad in principle; rather, it's bad in certain contexts (like on the LessWrong forum, but not e.g. in fiction books or manuals), and I wish you had more explicitly stated those contexts in which you think it is bad.

I think classic style is bad for all the situations that Pinker endorses it:

  • Academic papers
  • Non-fiction books
  • Textbooks
  • Blog posts
  • Manuals

This is because I can't think of any situations where the five limitations I mention would be appropriate.

 I think Academic papers could benefit with more of this classical style (not taken the whole way). Often I see "in section III we address the impact of the RW approximation." I scroll down. The title of Section III is "Impact of the RW approximation". So that was pointless. Often I see "In contrast to the analysis of Whoever et al we here account for foo via a blah blah blah" and similar. These serve to neatly partition the credit, drawing a line in the sand around what is new in this paper. As a reviewer these statements are useful, but as a reader of the paper who is not the reviewer they are a waste of space. I came to learn about apples, not about the division of novelty points between apple studiers. Ideally this kind of meta-data could be contained in a "letter to the referees" which could be linked to the paper online.

Although recommending full-on classical style for anything seems nuts.  "This manual describes the operation of the widget type A27, it is not suitable for other models."-  Forbidden.

When reading an academic paper, you don't find it useful when the author points out their contributions? I definitely do. I like to know whether the author asserts  because it's the consensus in the field, or whether the author asserts  because that's the conclusion of the data. If I later encounter strong evidence against  then this difference matters — it determines whether I update against that particular author or against the whole field.

Its a matter of taste maybe. Honestly, I don't think I have ever found it useful (outside refereeing). I was recently reading about how you quantify a particular thing. Instead of providing the equation in a self-contained way (which would have taken 3 lines of maths, and 2 sentences) the paper explained it sideways by first giving someone else's (wrong) suggestion and then explaining how they have modified that. I really just wanted the right method stated clearly. Providing the whole apparatus of a wrong method then a text explaining what changes will make it right makes it clearer who has discovered what, but its really bad for the useability of the paper.