Wisdom From the Grammar Goddess: Rhetorical Comments

Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP . She has many years of experience in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

Few people realize how badly they write. —William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 5th ed. (Harper, 1994), page 19.

People do not write well because they do not think well. They do not think well because they do not put in the effort. —E. Kim Nebeuts.

Faults of literary style are often faults of character. —Anonymous.

The final quotation above may seem curious. How can literary style be equated with morals or character? Writers with little substance to place on paper will occasionally try to expand their thoughts with an abundance of flowery vocabulary. It’s easy to spot writers who dabble in puffery: They pepper their writing with adjectives like very, extremely, much, etc.; and they embroider their ideas with jargon, unnecessary phrases, pretentious language, and clichés (ugh!). They focus their analysis on some small point, and write as if its significance has hitherto been unappreciated. We all do this to some extent. But when we find ourselves falling into these traps, we need to get out.

So my first rule of rhetoric is to be honest in your writing: Get to the point, don’t exaggerate, and be accurate. By the way, do you suppose some morally corrupt people may be honest writers, but that some saintly people may tend to puff up their writing? Alas, human character is complicated. Anyway, here are some of the rules of rhetoric that live in my brain.

1. Write honestly. What goes around, comes around. Most of our sins catch up with us before we die.

2. Proofread, revise, and proofread once again. My father once told me that thinking was the most painful activity in the world. For some reason, most human brains prefer to do no more than superficial thinking unless survival is involved. Proofreading and revision, the lowest forms of literary thinking, are chores we all want to avoid. Nevertheless, proofreading and revision are keys to improving. Here is a striking example of what revision can do:

A. In the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address there is a rallying cry for the continuation of the struggle.

B. In the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln rallied his audience to continue the struggle against the South.

—From Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams (The University of Chicago Press, 1990), page 28.

What intellectual process took place that transformed sentence A into the more powerful sentence B? The answer is that the author examined each sentence in the essay and asked the hard questions: What am I trying to say? Can I say this more explicitly? Is this even true? A puffed-up writer will fall under the weight of his own bad habits and lack of experience in revising. It is sad but true: Inflated writing is the result of laziness, deception, poor attitude, and stupidity. Puff is not a magic dragon.

3. Avoid affectations and fancy words. For example: The second statement follows mutatis mutandis from the first. The phrase mutatis mutandis (= “with corresponding changes”) is, indeed, an impressive phrase, but it is also baffling to most readers. Avoid fanciful and pretentious vocabulary. The following extract from an autobiography of the French mathematician André Weil illustrates just how bad affective writing can be:

My life, or at least what deserves this name—a singularly happy life, its diverse vicissitudes withal—is bounded by my birth on May 6, 1906, and the death on May 24, 1986, of my wife and companion.

It may be argued that clever phrasing and curious words make reading more interesting, and to deny an author their use limits his tools and leads to mundane writing. This is the argument of a novice who confuses poetry and song lyrics with formal prose. Both of the previous examples are demonstrations of bad communication, because the words distract from the ideas. Writers who choose words and phrases like this are treating writing as an art form much like dancing—as an end unto itself—rather than as a tool to express ideas.

Samuel Johnson once recalled the following remark from a college tutor: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage that you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” This, I think, is one of the great pieces of advice for beginners. Whenever a reader begins to notice the writing instead of the ideas carried by the writing, then the reader is being distracted.

4. Stick with the action, not the abstraction. Maybe this will help: After writing each sentence, imagine your boss, red-faced and screaming: “What are you talking about? I can’t understand you! Get to the point!” Minimize, and be concise. Your writing, like mine, is of interest only for the facts it brings the reader. Even most of those who dedicate their lives to the craft of writing don’t write particularly well. Bear in mind that your perspectives are rarely interesting to anyone else. (A striking exception, of course, is this article.)

5. Use passive constructions consciously. Here is the classic example of the passive voice: The ball was hit by the boy. This is fine if the ball is more important than the boy. If not, then change it: The boy hit the ball. The main objection to the passive is that it takes slightly more effort to parse.

Notice that ball comes before boy in the passive construction above. In a long sentence, such juxtaposition may force the passive voice. In technical and scholarly writing, the passive is often needed to place emphasis on a process, rather than on an observer or on the initiator of a process. Occasionally, the passive construction does work better than the active—e.g., The book was suppressed by its own author. When you use the passive, be aware of it, and know why.

A similar problem occurs with abstract verbs. The verbs lift, drop, smash, sever, destroy, for example, create mental images. The be verbs (be, been, being, am, is, are, was, were) are more abstract and require more effort to understand. Consider these two sentences:

Original: A need exists for greater candidate selection efficiency.

Revised: We need to select candidates more efficiently.

—From Style: Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams, page 30.

The second sentence is simple, concise, and easy to comprehend. This is generally not a problem with short sentences, but readers tire quickly when abstract verbs are used too often in complex sentences.

6. Use coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, so, for, and yet) to join parallel structures. For example: Success comes from suffering through depression and insecurity. This should be corrected to read: Success comes from suffering through depression and through insecurity. Lack of parallelism is a red flag that jars many readers. If only we had grammar police. Keep in mind that an intelligent reader is usually an unforgiving reader.

7. State your strongest arguments first. Do you think this is obvious? Aristotle taught the opposite. He also has been proven wrong through scientific tests of reading retention, but perhaps Aristotle was referring to oral debates or to the power of immediate persuasion. Some readers tune out early, so it’s important to capture their attention quickly.

8. Think. On occasion, an author is hard pressed to determine which interpretation of a sentence he or she originally intended. This occurs when writers splash words onto paper with little thought—i.e., they write before they think.

Writers must constantly ask: What am I trying to say? Surprisingly, often they don’t know. —William Zinsser, On Writing Well , 5th ed. (Harper, 1994), page 12.

These rules are no more—and are often considerably less—than guideposts to non-distracting communication. When followed, they do not guarantee intelligibility; when applied, they do not confer the attribute “fine writing.” Even “acceptable” writing comes at the price of inordinate effort. Nothing is simple.

This month’s recommended resource is Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (University of Chicago Press, 1990; reprinted in 1995), by Joseph M. Williams. The book is a bit dry, but its ultimate value repays the effort. Gleaning insight is never easy.

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.

Posted in: Grammar, Wisdom from the Grammar Goddess