Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Short old words are best

This editorial from The Economist (Oct 9, 2004; not available on line) on writing, or talking, for that matter, is very good. I reprint the whole of it, and hope that some students are paying attention (I have been reading the freshmen’s papers on Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus!). It begins with a quote from Churchill that I use in every class.

It is entitled, "Out with the long."

"Short words are best," said Winston Churchill, "and old words when short are the best of all."

And, not for the first time, he was right: short words are best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are. They do all that you want of them, and they do it well. On a good day, when all is right with the world, they are one more cause for cheer. On a bad day, when the head aches, you can get to grips with them, grasp their drift and take hold of what they mean. And thus they make you want to read on, not turn the page.

Yes, yes, you may say, that all sounds fine. But from time to time good prose needs a change of pace – a burst of speed, a touch of the brake, a slow swoop, a spring, a bound, a stop. Some might say a shaft of light and then a dim glow, some warp as well as weft, both fire and ice, a roll on the drum as much as a toot on the flute. Call it what you will. The point is that to get a range of step, stride and gait means you have to use some long words, some short, and some, well, just run of the mill, those whose place is in the mid range. What’s more, though you may find you can write with just short words for a while, in the end you don’t have to give in and reach for one of those terms which, like it or not, is made up of bits, more bits and yet more bits, and that adds up to a word which is long?

Then there is the ban on new words, or at least a puff for the old. Why? Time has moved on. The tongues of yore need help if they are to serve the way we live now. And, come to that, are you sure that the Greeks and Gauls and scribes of Rome were as great as they are cracked up to be? Singe my white head, they could make long words as well as any Hun or Yank or French, home de lettres who plies his trade these days.

Well, yes, some of those old folks words were on the long side, but long ones were by no means the rule. And though the tongue in which you read this stole words from here and there, and still does, at the start, if there was one, its words were short. Huh, you might say, those first “words” were no more than grunts. Yet soon they grew to be grunts with a gist, and time has shown that, add to the length of your words as you may, it is hard to beat a good grunt with a good gist.

That is why the short words, when old, are still the tops. Tough as boots or soft as silk, sharp as steel or blunt as toast, there are old, short words to fit each need. You want to make love, have a chat, ask the way, thank your stars, curse your luck or swear, scold and rail? Just pluck an old, short word at will. If you doubt that you will find the one you seek, look at what can be done with not much: “To be or not to be?” “And God said, Let there be light; and there was light,” “We are such stuff as dreams are mad on,” “The year’s at the spring/And day’s at the morn…/The lark’s on the wing;/The snail’s on the thorn.”

It can be done, you see. If you but try, you can write well, and say what you want to say, with short words. And you may not need a lot of them: some words add just length to your prose. That piece of string, the one whose length you all the time have to guess, is no less fine if it is short than if it is long; on its own, its length is not good, not bad, just the sum of its two halves. So it is with words. The worth of each lies in the ends to which it is put. Tie your string well, or ill, and its length counts for naught. Make your point well with short words, and you will have no use for long ones. Make it not so well, and you will be glad you kept them crisp. So, by God, will those who have read you.

Discussions - 2 Comments

For example:


The Eagle


He clasps the crag with crooked hands;


Close to the sun in lonely lands,


Ringed with the azure world, he stands.


The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;


He watches from his mountain walls,


And like a thunderbolt he falls.


Alfred Tennyson, Lord Tennyson

I tell my students a somewhat condictory message. First of all, they need to throw away their thesauruses and simplify their language. Next, they need to enhance and diversify their vocabulary. But, as you said, simplicity always expresses ideas well and doesn’t need to be, well, simple.

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