25 July 2010

Old English

Not really, but 19th century English. We are beginning to move so far beyond it that some of us find difficulty reading it. A member of our Episcopal book club once told me that he had trouble reading The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis because the writing was so old-fashioned. Fifteen years ago I could force students to read a few chapters of Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and after some adjustment they could appreciate his style, even enjoy it. Last year I did the same thing with a reasonably bright class of juniors and seniors and they simply found his prose impenetrable.

I was amused this morning to find a writing guide published in 1883 for writing English clearly. It is fascinating to see how things have changed, and how some things have not. Here are the first few rules:

1. Use words in their proper sense. [my favorite]

2. Avoid exaggerations.

3. Avoid useless circumlocution and "fine writing."

4. Be careful in the use of "not ... and," "any," "but," "only," "not ... or," "that."

4 a. Be careful in the use of ambiguous words, e.g. "certain."

Here are some rules specific to brevity.

46. Metaphor is briefer than literal statement.

47. General terms are briefer, though less forcible, than particular terms.

47 a. A phrase may sometimes be expressed by a word.

48. Participles may often be used as brief (though sometimes ambiguous) equivalents of phrases containing Conjunctions and Verbs.

49. Participles, Adjectives, Participial Adjectives, and Nouns may be used as equivalents for phrases containing the Relative.

50. A statement may sometimes be briefly implied instead of being expressed at length.

And as self-criticism, I pick this one:

51. Conjunctions may be omitted. Adverbs, e.g. "very," "so." Exaggerated epithets, e.g. "incalculable," "unprecedented."

I am going to have to dip into this some more. I am always interested in style. It is a mistake to assume that nineteenth century people were somehow less intelligent or less sophisticated than we.

and so, adieu, I am off to hunt me some metaphors quick as a bunny.

Unprecedentedly incalculable!


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At 25 July, 2010 21:05, Anonymous Joey Sobrino said...

The ending made me smilie

--Joey Sobrino

At 25 July, 2010 22:09, Blogger Clemens said...

Good. It sounds like you all need a smile down there now. Hope Bo is well.

Is Trish up here in Charlotte, or Ashville? Either place we want to visit as soon as you are both up here.

At 26 July, 2010 22:31, Anonymous Joey Sobrino said...

Bo is doing better it seems but was a little confused and impatient with his eating. He needs an oxygen mask but would bite off huge chunks of food. By the time he finished he was out of air. We urged smaller bites but he only really listens to Baba.

The Trish is in Asheville (we move Saturday morning to the Queen City) for the time being. We have a really comfortable (serious not sarcastic) fold out bed.


At 27 July, 2010 23:19, Blogger Clemens said...

We can come down if you let us know (we don't want to be in the way - but there is that place with the 100 beers on tap).


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