Strunk and WhiteI first thumbed a dog-eared copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style in middle school. It was not an assigned text but something I found in my mother’s office, where I typed my homework papers on her electronic word processor. (We didn’t have a computer until later; this was in the mid-1980s.) My middle school text books didn’t make an impression, unless I found a grammatical error or typo in the text, — great fun to point out to the teacher.  The Elements of Style, and later, Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference, which I got in 1992, became my bibles.  Two decades later, I would refer to Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference in a writing class I taught for a local college, and I recently gave a copy of Elements of Style to a college freshman who would like to be a writer. These are the best books to give a college student, if you’re reading this and planning to send a care package to someone in school. One other book inspired me to the point of it becoming a sort of reference book, at least in the way I read it more than twice, and referred to it the way my friends quoted TV show characters.

At eighteen, as a freshman at St. Lawrence University, I participated in a first-year program called “Exploring Language.” My classmates thought of this as college orientation, a requirement. For me, a girl who had invented a planned language in high school akin to Esperanto, though with far fewer speakers (okay, I admit, only one), this first-year program on language rocked my world. I took the initiative to stock up on books in addition to the required texts to gain a foothold on a favorite topic: linguistics and how language works in the brain. Steven Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct, fascinated me. I suppose I got a bit of an intellectual crush on Dr. Pinker, a professor at Harvard. In The Language Instinct, I was most struck by the examples he provides on aphasia, loss of language, and children who lacked language ability.   I also enjoyed the edition of  The Best American Science & Nature Writing (2004) edited by Pinker, who wrote the introduction, and The Blank Slate is also excellent. Words and Rules: the Ingredients of Language is on my wishlist to read. PinkerBook

In this blog, I have written about my love and respect for other science writers. Lately, perhaps because I am knee-deep in Lost Woods: the Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, I have been reflecting on the writers who inspired me 15-20 years ago.  Steven Pinker is definitely one of the best science writers I have had the pleasure of reading.

Last fall, Dr. Pinker gave a lecture to MIT students on “Communicating Science and Technology in the 21st Century.” He emphasizes the importance of writing as a skill for those working in science. I’ve taught writing classes, and enjoy teaching environmental science and nature writing in particular. It’s exciting when students suddenly awaken to discover new wonders of science and nature, then write about those newfound discoveries.  I love the writing advice that Steven Pinker passes along to students in that video.