Simple and Direct (Jacques Barzun on writing)

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RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Barzun, Jacques. Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers.

This is a manual for how to have pointed prose, yet not sound like a first grader reading Baby's First Primer.

1. Prefer the concrete noun to the abstract (24).

2. Avoid jargon, particularly words that have the “shun” sound at the end (25).

3. Get rid of Fancy Wordings (35).

4. Direction: The ways words point when linked with other words (40).

5. Avoid Euphemisms, slang, and local color: (41-50). Sometimes this is warranted, but rarely.

LINKING (Closeness governs the effect, whether intended or not, 77)

6. You may split an infinitive to avoid splitting a verb and its objects (59).

7. Verbs that take no preposition are frequently given a needless one by the hidden influence of some synonym (62).

8. Respect the integrity of set phrases, partitives, cliches, and complex modifiers (70).

9. Mischief awaits when we write with in a figurative manner (75).

10. Ideas connected in reality require words similarly linked, by nearness or by suitable

linking words (81). Linking terms should be short and common: as of = as; go with the latter.

11. For a plain style, avoid everything roundabout

12. Pronouns: make the reference to the antecedent clear (93). Barzun has a challenging suggestion here: “There can be no logical link between a proper name in the possessive case and a personal pronoun.” For example, “Wellington’s victory at Waterloo made him the greatest name in Europe.” The problem is that there is no person named for “him.” “Wellington’s” is not a name but an adjective. It corresponds with “victory.”

13. With yet and since the perfect tense is compulsory (verb with have; 99). The perfect tense allows distinctions to be marked in the relations with times indicated in the past.

14. “The best tone is the tone called plain, unaffected, and unadorned” (111). Beware of the “pseudo-technical tone:”
  • excess of nouns ending in tion (shun the “shun” sound!)

  • the use of verbs ending in ize (suggests a process)

  • the clustering of words without links

15. Beware of “adverbial dressing gowns (124). seriously consider; utterly reject; thoroughly examine.

16. Be strict with modifiers (129ff). If one adjective already describes something, you don’t need another modifier also suggesting similar themes (for instance, if you write about a falling stream, you don’t need to include mountains in the landscape. It is already implied). Adverbs and adjectives usually precede the nouns, but sometimes the post-positions works better.

17. Rhythm: Let your ear intuitively guide you (136). Barzun then adumbrates the pros and cons of the historical present, stream-of-consciousness, etc., but doesn’t really come to any conclusions. Avoid “copula” type verbs (has, are, is, had).

18. The mark of a plain tone is combined lucidity and force (140).

MEANING: What do I want to say?

19. Don’t use “personal” to modify some vague idea of emphasis (156).

20. When matching, do not start with an indicative and end with a participial -ing. (163).

21. Make fewer words do more work by proper balance, matching parts, and tight construction (165). Do not join two live metaphors that raise conflicting images. This is particularly evident in using abstract metaphors.

22. Worship no images and question the validity of all (173). Put words in order of increasing strength.

Composition

23. The beginning and end of a sentence are the emphatic places (191). Storylike effects can be created by how one places details. Periodic styles create suspense. Only use it on interesting matter.

24. Even if a sentence is long, if there is a continuous presence of subject and activity, it makes for smooth reading (194). Connect verbs by the one subject.

25. The writing of a sentence is finished only when the order of words cannot be changed without damage to its thought or visibility (199).

26. Transitional words are like signposts, which the reader relies on to stay on the road. To keep the usage down, the sentence itself can often do the work (205). Try to couch your thought in such terms that it will prepare the reader for the next sequence. The fewer the transition, the stronger.

27. Opening sentences: Frame a declarative sentence that goes straight at the heart of things, awakens a quiet curiosity, and in its quiet, assured finality establishes the competence of the demonstrator (208).

28. Outlining and notes: your outline and notes should spur you forward, not drag you behind. Write from memory as much as possible (214). You must “want to tell” something.

29. Verify the sequence of ideas and take out or transpose everything that interrupts the march of thought (218).

30. The logic system demands a comma before the relative pronoun of every non-defining clause (236). The difference between essential and non-essential clauses. “That” introduces the usual non-defining clauses.

31. The colon is a sort of “equals” sign. It gives the feel of a sort of “confrontation” (238).

32. On Dashes: Dashes act like parentheses. Do not use more than one pair of dashes in a sentence. Using a dash can suggest impatience, afterthought or summation.
 

Regi Addictissimus

Completely sold out to the King
Thanks for sharing along with the review. I am currently reading Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. This is added to my list for when I finish.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
“There can be no logical link between a proper name in the possessive case and a personal pronoun.” For example, “Wellington’s victory at Waterloo made him the greatest name in Europe.” The problem is that there is no person named for “him.” “Wellington’s” is not a name but an adjective. It corresponds with “victory.”

That's not true. "Wellington's victory" is equivalent to "The victory of Wellington", which provides a perfectly intelligible antecedent to the pronoun. It may be a construction ad sensum, but most minds are flexible enough to sort that out.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
That's not true. "Wellington's victory" is equivalent to "The victory of Wellington", which provides a perfectly intelligible antecedent to the pronoun. It may be a construction ad sensum, but most minds are flexible enough to sort that out.

You are right that most minds are flexible enough to figure it out, but I think the ambiguity remains. Probably because modern English doesn't have an official genitive case.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
In fact, one could push a little further on Barzun, at least as it relates to English.

"Wellington's victory", on one theory of the history of "apostrophe+s" to indicate possession is a contraction of "Wellington his victory". If that --instead of or alongside of the Saxon genitive-- is the explanation, one pronoun is baked right into the crust of the expression; a subsequent pronoun would by no means lack a point of reference.
 

Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
1. “Wellington’s victory at Waterloo made him the greatest name in Europe.”

2. "Wellington's victory at Waterloo made his the greatest name in Europe."

Him, an object pronoun, should refer to a noun, and not only a noun, but a male person. That noun must be either Wellington or victory. Obviously, since English has lost its gendered nouns (and victory would presumably be feminine anyway) we cannot refer to victory as him.

Wellington could of course be referred to as him, but not here. A masculine object pronoun makes the sentence say that Wellington, the person who won a victory at Waterloo, is a name.

We couldn't use a masculine object pronoun to refer to name. A name is not something we would ever speak of as a male person, but rather as a possession of a person, in this case a male person, and so a masculine possessive adjective is necessary here.

The first sentence says,

"Wellington won a victory at Waterloo."
"Wellington, a person, is himself a name."
"He (the name) is the greatest name in Europe."

That's not true. "Wellington's victory" is equivalent to "The victory of Wellington", which provides a perfectly intelligible antecedent to the pronoun. It may be a construction ad sensum, but most minds are flexible enough to sort that out.

It may be intelligible, but it is not proper.

In fact, one could push a little further on Barzun, at least as it relates to English.

"Wellington's victory", on one theory of the history of "apostrophe+s" to indicate possession is a contraction of "Wellington his victory". If that --instead of or alongside of the Saxon genitive-- is the explanation, one pronoun is baked right into the crust of the expression; a subsequent pronoun would by no means lack a point of reference.

"Baked into the crust of the expression" is not a pronoun, but a masculine possessive adjective.

Barzun is correct.
 
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py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
Tom, I am grateful for your detailed analysis. Certainly the sentence as you amend it is vastly more satisfactory and elegant than the original version, which ideally is one of the benefits of using good grammar.

But I still think Barzun's statement, at least in the portion that was presented, smacks of the sort of rigidity that made Dr. Johnson speak about how there were errors on nearly every page of Shakespeare. No halfway sensible reader would be misled into thinking the author meant that Wellington the man was nothing more than a name. In multiple languages, there is good literature which contains such grammatical blemishes, sometimes without injury, sometimes even with gain.
 

Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
While I agree that in the name of poetry men have license to bend grammar or pronunciation. I am in full agreement with Dr. Johnson here, and I do not favour such rigidity as is sometimes taught today. (In university I was told to never use a split infinitive. Try telling the Puritans that!)

Language is not mathematics, it is communication. But still, we ought to make an effort to communicate well. The context of the communication matters, too, of course.

I think it unlikely, though, that Shakespeare would have committed the above error. It seems to me (though I am not sure) that it is a bit lazy more than anything. Shakespeare was far too careful a poet to admit that. (I'd be more than happy to be proven wrong here.)
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
(In university I was told to never use a split infinitive. Try telling the Puritans that!)

Did you mean that you were told never to use a split infinitive? :bouncing: I think you get that sort of construction in the example above where people are eliding part of the thought, which may happen in prose through inadvertence, but also happens in poetry from metrical or rhythmic constraints.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
My habits are just the opposite! I can see that it is more elegant to avoid the contractions; but most of the contractions I use are either interrogatives or imperatives, and the latter especially are not always phrased with an eye to elegance...
 

bookslover

Puritan Board Doctor
One thing that can lead to good writing is to read good writing. Read Edward Gibbon's volumes on the Roman Empire or read Winston Churchill's biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough (Leo Strauss called it the 20th century's best biography) or read Thomas Babington Macaulay's essays. Or, more recently, read practically anything J. I. Packer has written (just to pick one).

Reading good stuff can lead to writing good stuff.
 

a mere housewife

Not your cup of tea
Shakespeare was far too careful a poet to admit that.

This is just an opinion and more of an aside to the above discussion, but I think of Shakespeare's mind just ebullient with thoughts and meters, not obsessing over every word. I don't think the kind of poet who so obsesses could have been half so prolific. He definitely *played* with language.
 

Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
This is just an opinion and more of an aside to the above discussion, but I think of Shakespeare's mind just ebullient with thoughts and meters, not obsessing over every word. I don't think the kind of poet who so obsesses could have been half so prolific. He definitely *played* with language.

I agree. Perhaps "careful" was the wrong word. "Fluent" might be better.

In fact, they say that Shakspeare could produce a play in a mere matter of days! Contrast that with Tolstoy, who spent fifty years writing and revising War and Peace.
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
One thing that can lead to good writing is to read good writing. Read Edward Gibbon's volumes on the Roman Empire or read Winston Churchill's biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough (Leo Strauss called it the 20th century's best biography) or read Thomas Babington Macaulay's essays. Or, more recently, read practically anything J. I. Packer has written (just to pick one).

Reading good stuff can lead to writing good stuff.
Any more suggestions?:)
 
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