Analysis of Stephen Jay Gould’s Writing Style


Most talented authors have their own style, which is reflected in the topics, structure, and word choices of the writer. Stephen Jay Gould also has a “voice” in literature, which allows readers to recognize his work from the first lines and attracts most of them. This paper will explore the style, themes, punctuation, word choice, and measures for readers’ engagement that Gould uses in his works to determine his unique approach to writing.

Main body

The first feature of Gould’s work is his combination of scientific and general vocabulary to compose broad and understandable explanations for a wide audience of readers. This feature is key in the works of Gould, since, in his opinion, scientific theories and concepts should be conveyed with all the scientific details regardless of their complexity for the average reader. In other words, Gould adds clarification and description and uses simplified vocabulary, but at the same time leaves the essence of each theory or concept unchanged. In some cases, the author adds such explanations to relatively simple words. For example, in Flaws of a Victorian Vail, the author writes: “I then discovered that Elizabeth simply expurgated the text and didn’t even insert ellipses (those annoying three dots) to indicate her deletions” (Clifford and DiYanni 216). The word “ellipses” is common for the educated reader and does not need explanation, but Gould used parentheses to clarify it and add irony at the same time. In other words, clarifications are used precisely for specific terms. For example, in Evolution as Fact and Theory, Gould says, “Yet paleontologists have discovered two transitional lineages of therapsids (the so-called mammal-like reptiles) with a double jaw joint…” (Clifford and DiYanni 236). In some cases, the author uses whole sentences or paragraphs to explain the scientific details of his arguments, so his style is easy to read for a broad audience.

Another detail that creates Gould’s unique style is the use of a predominantly active voice to describe facts more accurately and specifically. Most often, authors of scientific papers avoid this to generalize ideas or concepts, which makes them less understandable for the reader. However, Gould uses an active voice, expresses his own opinion reinforced by facts, which makes explanations easier to understand, and engages the reader in the reasoning process. For example, in Women’s Brain, Gould writes, “To appreciate the social role of Broca and his school, we must recognize that his statements about the brains of women do not reflect an isolated prejudice toward a single disadvantaged group” (Clifford and DiYanni 228). Thus, the author does not separate the ordinary reader from the great scientific minds by using “we” instead of passive voice constructions “it must be recognized”, thereby encouraging their interest.

Another feature and way of engaging readers are the questions and references to common examples and facts. The New York Times journalist summed up this approach with the words: “He employed a voice that was a successful combination of learned Harvard professor and baseball-loving everyman” (Yoon). Indeed, this approach allows the reader to feel familiar with the author, but at the same time, trust his expert opinion. For example, in the Prologue, Gould invites the reader to read a phrase about the need to be powerful with a New York accent (Clifford and DiYanni 211). He adds this detail to ironically ridicule and explains his idea about a false sense of might. At the same time, in Flaws of a Victorian Vail, the author asks, “Did he really have no ax to grind, no predisposition, no impetus beyond his love for natural history?” (Clifford and DiYanni 218). This question is used to raise doubts among the reader and reveal the central thesis of the article about the often fake morality of the great people of the Victorian era. This technique is also used in the article Women’s Brain, although it is often more sarcastic. However, the questions are usually not rhetorical, since the author further gives an answer to them. In this way, Gould grabs the readers’ attention and interest, which makes his writing style stand out.

All these aspects are also reflected in the syntax that the author uses in his articles. Firstly, any work by Gould has many commas and parentheses because the author inserts explanations as the discussion progresses. For example, Gould can briefly explain the meaning of a term and a branch of science, separating it with commas. Parentheses are also used to emphasize the dubiousness of other authors’ arguments and ironically indicate disagreement with them. For example, Gould writes, “In 1879, Gustave Le Bon, chief misogynist of Broca’s school, used these data to publish what must be the most vicious attack upon women in the modern scientific literature (no one can top Aristotle).” (Clifford and DiYanni 226). By clarifying about Aristotle, Gould ridicules misogyny in general and the absurdity of ideas, on which the conclusions of some scientists about the intelligence of women stand.

However, in general, Gould’s sentences and paragraphs’ structure are designed to make it easier for the reader to understand the ideas. Most sentences are short, and paragraphs are combined with quotes that Gould discusses and explains. This approach is designed for a wide audience as it simplifies the perception of the text and helps readers not to “get stuck” in one sentence to understand its meaning. Therefore, this aspect is another detail that allows readers to recognize Gould’s works.

Moreover, just like the syntax, the choice of words of the author is also a characteristic of his work. Since the primary goal of Gould is to transfer intricate scientific knowledge to a wide audience without distorting its meaning, the author is very careful in his choice of words. The vocabulary used in Gould’s works consists of scientific concepts and terms that are understandable to his audience. However, at the same time, the author’s language is not too simple because the articles are intended for adults who are interested in science and critical thinking. For example, Gould presents the fact, “Louis argued, in short, that races should be kept separate lest white superiority is diluted” (Clifford and DiYanni 219). This sentence shows that Gould does not want to burden readers with unnecessary details but, at the same time, preserves advanced vocabulary. Hence, a balance between complex scientific terminology and language accessible to a wide audience is also a feature of Gould’s writing.

Gould’s work also has to be considered in terms of reading complexity as it requires interpretation and criticism from the reader. While in most of his articles, Gould criticizes the work of other authors, offers interpretations, and also creates a mood with his sarcastic remarks, he leaves room for active reading. In addition, although some authors use a passive voice and avoid pronouns to direct the action towards the reader, the opposite principle works more effectively in Gould’s works (Clifford and DiYanni 2). It seems to me that the use of “we” and “I” allows the reader to feel like a participant in the discussion. This approach seems the most appropriate since it helps not only to get knowledge with the facts given by the author but also to develop critical thinking. Many parentheses and questions that Gould uses to explain or make ironic remarks and invite the reader to the discussion are necessary to present scientific article ideas. These features help to read papers to the end and re-read them to find new interpretations of arguments.


In conclusion, Gould’s writing has many features that enable it to engage readers, reveal topics, and encourage active reading. The main hallmark is the use of many explanations for terms or the author’s own thoughts by adding parentheses, commas, and dashes. Although at the same time, the author does not oversimplify scientific concepts to convey their meaning accurately and make the reader think. This factor expresses respect for the broader audience because Gould does not allow himself to underestimate its intelligence. However, he still considers the interests and skills of the reader, so he does not forget to clarify specific scientific concepts, although he avoids formal and syntactically complex constructions. Thus, it can be noted that the main feature of Gould’s writing is the combination of an informal style of storytelling with the accuracy and formality of science, which allows a wide audience to explore complex concepts and think critically.

Works Cited

Clifford, John, and Robert DiYanni. Modern American Prose: Fifteen Writers. 5th ed., McGraw-Hill, 1987.

Yoon, Carol Kaesuk. “Stephen Jay Gould, Biologist and Theorist on Evolution, Dies at 60.” The New York Times, 2002, Web.

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