It Is True That Words Are Cheap

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Synonyms are like spices: used in moderation, they enhance the taste; used without moderation, they obscure every flavour. Linguistic gustation differentiates between them under the titles synonymia and tautology. Though, of course, pleasurable variety for one reader is overabundance for another.

Let’s have a saucy example.

“She’s an Encyclopaedia, that woman.”

“Of all the vices, ancient and modern, and very interesting to riffle through.” He started stoking up the fire. “There’s everything in that woman, of the ghoul, the lamia, the Greek courtesan, the Barbarian queen, the low prostitute, the great lady of Rome, with something very partial, very gripping, very corruption of the fin-de-siècle, very Baudlerian, if I might put it like that: a slightly funereal seasoning of lust and quasi-Christian resignation; she’s as subject, a case-study. …”

“For the Salpêtrière, eh—let’s say the word. Another neurotic.”

—Jean Lorrain in The Unknown Woman (translation by Brian Stableford)

How’s that on the digestion?

Lorrain specialises in psychological studies of moral decadence—and there is a separate post on his prose—but for now it suffices to note that to some people the quote may appear overdone. And that’s despite me having spared you the accompanying references to Pasiphae and the bull, Messalina’s promiscuity, and Cleopatra in general.

(Writing tip: Observe that Lorrain prepares the reader for the word-train by having his characters be aware of the upcoming speech figure: they call the woman an encyclopaedia. Clever. It helps believability.)

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Every Chance of Going Wrong

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False scent: When the author claims this is lavender, and some readers claim it’s only a picture of lavender.

 

For Christmas I received from my grandfather-in-law a special present: his lovingly kept second edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers). Even though I’d heard of Fowler’s, seen it referenced, and perused extracts from its modern entries, I’d never actually held it my hands—until now!

Despite this copy’s notable sixty years of age, its pages are in impeccable condition. Fowler’s advice, his examples, and inherent relevance show some wear, but nothing that the author’s sense of humour doesn’t amply recompense. I speak of this 1968 edition. The few more flavourful entries that I was able to search for in a 1996 edition were either non-existent or effectively bowdlerised. What’s left nowadays is the bland and spartan, but most pragmatic, dictionary-speak.

I understand why—political correctness and modernisation march rightly on—though I think the earlier editions can still be enjoyed, if not as go-to guides, then as historical documents. Quirky and witty ones at that. Although, I warn you: quirk and wit have this charismatic presence that often wins out over straight-laced teachings.

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Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance

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If you want to write about the flower, don’t write about the shadow just to be different.

Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.

On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.

Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.

For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.

Examples help.

A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his own dictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found in Essays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).

I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)

The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing.  Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).

Density isn’t just a property of non-fiction.

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