The fact that Pinker committed these needless words 21 times in The Sense of Style

In the very first paragraph of The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker writes:

William Strunk’s course notes on writing was studded with gems of self-exemplification such as “Write with nouns and verbs,” “Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end,” and best of all, his prime directive, “Omit needless words.” 1

Here’s what Strunk & White actually said about that “prime directive” (Rule 13):

13. Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
In especial the expression “the fact that” should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.
owing to the fact that > since (because)
in spite of the fact that > though (although)
call your attention to the fact that > remind you (notify you)
I was unaware of the fact that > I was unaware that (did not know)
the fact that he had not succeeded > his failure
the fact that I had arrived > my arrival 2

Especially note the prime directive’s prime directive: “In especial the expression ”the fact that” should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.”

You might, therefore, expect not to find ”the fact that” in Mr. Pinker’s style guide. You might be wrong. The fact is ”the fact that” appears 21 times: 3

  1. Greene does not tut-tut over the fact that this reasoning depends on complex mathematics.
  2. By displaying this number in all its multi-zeroed glory, Greene impresses upon us the fact that it is very small yet oddly precise.
  3. Elsewhere in his essay, Greene does not hide the fact that many of his fellow physicists think that string theory and the multiverse are extravagant and unproven.
  4. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say.
  5. In the same way, a tap on the wrist became a “stimulus” and a tap on the elbow became a “poststimulus event,” because the writers cared about the fact that one event came after the other and no longer cared about …
  6. … the fact that the events were taps on the arm. [extra credit, that’s two in one! – L]
  7. Our study participants show a pronounced tendency to be more variable than the norming samples, although this trend may be due partly to the fact that individuals with higher measured values of cognitive ability are more variable in their responses to personality questionnaires.*
  8. Even worse, this trend may be due partly to the fact that burdens an attentive reader with ten words, seven levels, and more than two dozen branches. Total content? Approximately zero.*
  9. Here are a few other morbidly obese phrases, together with leaner alternatives that often mean the same thing: … in view of the fact that > since*
  10. … owing to the fact that > because*
  11. Suppose we begin a passage with ”The governor canceled the convention today”. At this point it’s more coherent to continue it with ”The cancellation was unexpected” than with ”It was unexpected that the governor would cancel the convention” or ”The fact that the governor canceled the convention was unexpected”.*
  12. That sentence lays out two arcs of logical coherence: Cape Cod is an example of southward migration, and the fact that its winters are not too cold is an explanation of why some herons end up there.
  13. So what part of this thought did Clausewitz and Aristotle (and what’s he suddenly doing in this conversation?) fail to confront: the fact that man is a thinking animal, or …
  14. … the fact that what he thinks about is how to hunt and kill? [Another double – woot! – L]
  15. The dictionary, quite reasonably, contained an entry in which people could learn about the word, including, of course, the fact that many speakers disapprove of it.
  16. The fact that many prescriptive rules are worth keeping does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom’s classroom is worth keeping.
  17. When the focus is on the entire event, packaged into a conceptual whole, the genitive subject seems better: if the fact that Sheila is taking the job had been mentioned previously, and we were all discussing whether this was a good thing or a bad thing (not just for Sheila but for the company, her friends, and her family), I might say ”I approve of Sheila’s taking the job”.
  18. The infamy did not come from the fact that the company was using a catchy jingle to get people addicted to carcinogens.
  19. It came from the fact that the jingle allegedly contained a grammatical error.
  20. To start with, the fact that ”like” is a preposition, which typically takes a noun phrase complement, does not mean that it may not take a clausal complement as well.
  21. The imbroglio arises from the fact that we have two distinct verbs fighting over the form ”lay”: it’s the past tense of ”lie”, and it’s the plain form of ”lay”, whose meaning — just to torment you further — is “cause to lie.”

I’d bet that Pinker had many good reasons to flout Rule 13. The fact that he did not disclose any reason is disconcerting. And that’s a fact, that.

Notes:

  1. Pinker, Steven (2014-09-30). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Kindle Locations 62-64). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
  2. Strunk, William; Strunk Junior, William; William Strunk, The Elements of Style by (2011-06-27). (Kindle Locations 462-482). The Elements of Style Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. *16 times, if you’re a stickler for fairness and justice, since Pinker used “the fact that” five times to illustrate that it ought not be used

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