Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Purity of Style

The following is from "How to Speak and Write Correctly", by Joseph Devlin, 1910. It applies to writing style, but there is some usefulness here in terms of speaking style as well.

Purity of style consists in using words which are reputable, national and present, which means that the words are in current use by the best authorities, that they are used throughout the nation and not confined to one particular part, and that they are words in constant use at the present time.

There are two guiding principles in the choice of words,—good use and good taste. Good use tells us whether a word is right or wrong; good taste, whether it is adapted to our purpose or not.

A word that is obsolete or too new to have gained a place in the language, or that is a provincialism, should not be used.

Here are the Ten Commandments of English style:

1. Do not use foreign words.
2. Do not use a long word when a short one will serve your purpose. Fire is much better than conflagration.
3. Do not use technical words, or those understood only by specialists in their respective lines, except when you are writing especially for such people.
4. Do not use slang.
5. Do not use provincialisms, as "I guess" for "I think"; "I reckon" for "I know," etc.
6. Do not in writing prose, use poetical or antiquated words: as "lore, e'er, morn, yea, nay, verily, peradventure."
7. Do not use trite and hackneyed words and expressions; as, "on the job," "up and in"; "down and out."
8. Do not use newspaper words which have not established a place in the language as "to bugle"; "to suicide," etc.
9. Do not use ungrammatical words and forms; as, "I ain't;" "he don't."
10. Do not use ambiguous words or phrases; as—"He showed me all about the house."

Trite words, similes and metaphors which have become hackneyed and worn out should be allowed to rest in the oblivion of past usage. Such expressions and phrases as "Sweet sixteen" "the Almighty dollar," "Uncle Sam," "On the fence," "The Glorious Fourth," "Young America," "The lords of creation," "The rising generation," "The weaker sex," "The weaker vessel," "Sweetness long drawn out" and "chief cook and bottle washer," should be put on the shelf as they are utterly worn out from too much usage.

Some of the old similes which have outlived their usefulness and should be pensioned off, are "Sweet as sugar," "Bold as a lion," "Strong as an ox," "Quick as a flash," "Cold as ice," "Stiff as a poker," "White as snow," "Busy as a bee," "Pale as a ghost," "Rich as Croesus," "Cross as a bear" and a great many more far too numerous to mention.

Be as original as possible in the use of expression. Don't follow in the old rut but try and strike out for yourself. This does not mean that you should try to set the style, or do anything outlandish or out of the way, or be an innovator on the prevailing custom. In order to be original there is no necessity for you to introduce something novel or establish a precedent. The probability is you are not fit to do either, by education or talent. While following the style of those who are acknowledged leaders you can be original in your language. Try and clothe an idea different from what it has been clothed and better. If you are speaking or writing of dancing don't talk or write about "tripping the light fantastic toe." It is over two hundred years since Milton expressed it that way in "L'Allegro." You're not a Milton and besides over a million have stolen it from Milton until it is now no longer worth stealing.

Don't resurrect obsolete words such as whilom, yclept, wis, etc., and be careful in regard to obsolescent words, that is, words that are at the present time gradually passing from use such as quoth, trow, betwixt, amongst, froward, etc.

And beware of new words. Be original in the construction and arrangement of your language, but don't try to originate words. Leave that to the Masters of language, and don't be the first to try such words, wait until the chemists of speech have tested them and passed upon their merits.

Quintilian said—"Prefer the oldest of the new and the newest of the old." Pope put this in rhyme and it still holds good:

In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold, Alike fantastic, if too new or old: Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.