Thursday, November 10, 2011

Don't Go Long, Don't Go Short, Go Deep!

Another unconventional day in Ye Olde Blog brings us another bit of Yoda's (non-erotic) curiosa. Any mention of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style (1920, 2011) brings undergraduate memories. The "little book" was the text in English Composition (now Advanced Writing/nonfiction) when this blogger studied at the knee (and other low joints) of Professor Robert F. Richards. If this is the (fair & balanced) choice of proper words in proper places, so be it.

[x CHE/Lingua Franca]
Going Short
By Ben Yagoda

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The English language is unusual and I believe unique in having hundred and hundreds of pairs of precise or very nearly precise synonyms in which one of the words is plain and the other fancy. Often, the longer word is Latinate in origin and the shorter one Anglo-Saxon. A few examples would include:

Purchase buy; humorous funny; possess have; appears seems; transpire occur happen; signify mean; reference refer to; individual person; subsequently later; speak talk; lengthy long; utilize use; usage use; signage signs; require need; remain stay; regarding about.

In certain fields (bureaucratic, legal, academic), some combination of obfuscation and pretentious seems to be valued, and in writing for these disciplines, the longer word is preferable. For very other kind of writing, the default move should be short.

Now, sometimes you will want the fancy word, for variety, ironic effect, sound, or some other reason. And thousands of splendid and useful multisyllabic, high-toned and/or arcane words, especially the much-maligned adjective, have no simple equivalent. What better way to describe an out-of-the way word than arcane, a bitter person than dyspeptic, or the act of deliberately giving up something as eschewing? If you “own” such a word, in the sense of being confident of its meaning and nuance, go for it! Otherwise, nine times out of ten, simpler is better.

E.B. White has a wonderful paragraph about his former Cornell teacher William Strunk, author of the original The Elements of Style, which White edited and updated in the 1950s and which has been in print ever since. (Important notice: This post does not constitute an endorsement of The Elements of Style, nor am I interested in your opinion of that book.) The subject is concise sentences, rather than short words, but it is worth a listen no matter what:

“Omit needless words!” cries the author on page 39, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with so much eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself—a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

Here’s the percentage of time White uses words of various lengths:

One syllable: 67%

Two syllables: 21%

Three syllables: 10%

Four syllables: 2%

Five syllables: 0

Six syllables: 1%

Seven syllables or above: 0

I am interested if anyone can make a case that White’s use of short words prevents the passage from being smart, subtle, witty, and perceptive. In my view, his proportions seem about right as a model for us all, with the understanding that there will be a little give and take in view of your own personal style and the kind of writing you’re doing. Note, by the way, the only four-plus-syllable words he used in this 128-word passage: imperative, predicament, and conspiratorial. I also like his use of the short but fancy uttered and oration. These are all eminently fine words, not replaceable by anything plainer, and a model for when it’s OK to go long. Ω

[Ben Yagoda (B.A. Yale, M.A. University of Pennsylvania) is the author of Memoir: A History (2009), About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), and Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) and the coeditor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (1997). He has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to more than fifty national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. He is a professor of journalism and literary non-fiction in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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