Friday, October 19, 2007

Is it breezy?

Have you come across a book called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E B White? It's long held classic status in the US, but I only stumbled on it recently, and I'd very warmly recommend it. Just 100 pages long, it's a guide to writing muscular, flab-free English prose, densely packed with rather ferociously expressed advice, most of which I strongly agree with.

To take just one of many examples, Strunk and White are hotly opposed to nouns being used as verbs, which I also rage against in CICYM. (We were tasked with assessing how this initiative impacts the business . . .") It's interesting and a little sobering to note, though, how quickly usage turns unacceptable barbarisms into everyday language. Writing in the late 50s, Strunk and White strongly objected to both host (as in hosting an event) and chair (as in chairing a meeting), which I'd suggest even the most fastidious prose stylist would use without hesitation today.

Anyway, to the point of this piece, which is that out of all S&W's suggestions and strictures, the one that struck me most forcefully was this:

"Do not affect a breezy style."

Breezy? For some reason, the word sent a little tremor of guilty recognition through me. Without needing to read any further, I felt pretty sure that breeziness was a sin I had sometimes indulged in.

And here, when I did read on, is how the magisterial S&W described a breezy writer: " . . . he obviously has nothing to say, he is showing off and directing the attention of the reader to himself, he is using slang with neither provocation nor ingenuity . . . he is humorless (though full of fun), dull and empty. He has not done his work."

Well, I hope I don't often write in a way that would leave me open to that damning catalogue of charges. And I think it's also worth noting that we live in a different age, where drawing attention to oneself - failing to be self-effacing - is no longer considered quite such a manifest virtue as it was half a century ago.

But, that said, I think it's undeniably true that a huge amount of commercial persuasive writing (including, I'm afraid, some produced by me) could justifiably be accused of breeziness; that's to say, of adopting a light-hearted and jokily facetious style in an attempt to conceal a lack of true substance.


At 12:34 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> hotly opposed to nouns being used as verbs, which I also rage against in CICYM. (We were tasked with assessing how this initiative impacts the business . . .")

How does that fit in with fly as in flying and fly an insect. Or orange the fruit and orange the colour (although neither oranges there are verbs though). There's probably others like that. I like that kind of slippage and find it quite interesting (the fly one). There's something amazingly straight forward and pragmatic about it -- a kind of cave man logic. Fly.

In fact things slipping into process rather than static object, at least perception slipping, is pretty interesting. I was watching a pretty boring Open University programme about the evolution of the horse. They had a series of fossils showing the various stages of its development. Over on the left an animal which looked more like a dog (about half the size of a modern horse), on the right, the horse as we know it. I thought "where would you draw the line where before the line: no horse, and after the line: horse" and of course it's a silly quesiton becuase all it's asking is what your definition of horse is, it's just a language question. But then I realised that a horse is an ongoing project not a static object. Horse is a verb. Then there's that book by R. Buckminster Fuller called "I seem to be a verb" which may or may not be getting at a similar idea as the horse project/ongoing process thing. Thinking of a horse as an ongoing project is an instance of "nouns being used as verbs" isn't it? If so I think using nouns as verbs is a good thing.

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