Reading Note:
Using It Wrong


Some sort of internal sensor has always warned me away from William Zinnser’s On Writing Well. If there’s more to the avoidance than that, some more lucid explanation for my persistent discinlination even to have a look at On Writing Well , I’ve forgotten it. But a talk that Mr Zinsser delivered on the subject, to incoming international grad students at the J school, not only left my caution intact but reminded me why I have always regarded the “profession of journalism” as hostile to language in general and to writing in particular.

Mr Zinsser’s conception of writing appears to be a kind of service — perhaps the kind of service that leads its customers to feel serviced. There are five basic rules:

Short is better than long.
Simple is good.
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence.

Do you know what that sounds like to me? That sounds like a quickie manual for quickie masculine sexual gratification. I can reduce those five precepts to one: “Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible.”

Simple may be good, but Mr Zinsser’s sketch of the history of the English language is simple-minded. First, he says, there’s Latin, “the florid language of ancient Rome.” The floridity of Latin is undoubtedly the virtue that generations of schoolboys had flogged into them at the better English schools.

Arma virumque cano…

Florid? Having noted the wrong-headedness of this judgment, we go  back to Mr Zinsser’s simple history. First, there’s Latin, which is bad; then there’s Anglo-Saxon, which is good. No connection, no interrelationship between these background families is traced. The criminal importation of Latinate words must have been effected by people who couldn’t speak English well enough to press nuance, suggestion, or abstract indeterminacy from hard-grained nuggets of Anglo-Saxon.

What a disservice Mr Zinsser does these students by drawing their attention to his cartoonish view of our language’s development! The very first thing to know about English, surely, is that it is the child of violent conquest and long-term social stratification. We not only know about these evils, but we’ve been talking about them for roughly a thousand years. A provincial early French was spoken by governing Normans and Angevins while the common people were divided by regional variations of a Teutonic dialect. Inevitably, these linguistic resources were made use of by the same people, and in the same sentence. My favorite example, a legal maxim that I can no longer source, defines “nuisance” as a situation in which

le noisomeness de la stench est plus que le utility de le use.

The best way to put this in clear contemporary English would probably be: “The stink outweighs the advantages,” and I don’t think that the final word, with its four syllables and its Romance parentage, can be improved on. And note that “use,” a nice, firm word of one syllable, is also Latinate in derivation.

English has been a battleground of highbrows and lowbrows since Chaucer’s day at least. The best writers get over their class-bound prejudices and and try to balance the short and plain against polysyllabic complexity. “Short is better than long” is simply stunting.

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