Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Fowler’s Modern English Usage

The power of small

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

Thus begins the gospel of John in the Authorized Version. This is one of the most powerful paragraphs in the English language. There are 54 words, 50 of them are words of one syllable.

The wording of this statement can not be improved. There are layers of meaning here that would be submerged if we used longer words, or added adjectives and adverbs.

H. W. Fowler put it this way:

“It is a general rule that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour. This is especially so in English, where the native words are short, and the long words are foreign. . . . Good English does consist in the main of short words. There are many good reasons, however, against any attempt to avoid a polysyllable if it is the word that will give our meaning best; moreover the occasional polysyllable will have added effect  from being set among short words. What is here deprecated is the tendency among the ignorant to choose, because it is a polysyllable, the word that gives their meaning no better or even worse. Mr. Pecksniff, we are told, was in the frequent habit of using any word that occurred to him as having a good sound, and rounding a sentence well, without much care for its meaning. He still has his followers.”

From love of the long word, page 394, Fowler’s Modern English Usage,Second Edition, © 1965 Oxford University Press.

Effective Words

It is not a simple thing to learn how to use words to say exactly what one wants to say in the most effective way possible. But the words themselves should be simple. Here is some of the best writing advice I have come across. The first two were written by Canadians, the third by an Englishman and the fourth by an American.

In all ages pompous people use a pompous language, half-educated people an over-educated speech, and people of small intellect run to words a size too large.
Stephen Leacock, How to Write, © 1944

Too many writers have the habit of purchasing, utilizing, requiring when they need, acquiring when they get — all the time. The simpler word seems inadequate. This is an illusion. Use the simplest, most everyday words you can. . . . One way to put it into practice is to imagine that instead of putting words on paper. . . you’re talking to someone you know. If you can work that way, you’ll be bugged a little less by the inclination to lapse into bigger words than you need.
Bill Cameron, A Way With Words © 1979

It need hardly be said that shortness is a merit in words. There are often reasons why shortness is not possible; much less often there are occasions when length, not shortness, is desirable. But it is a general truth that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour.
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, © 1965

If you have any doubt of what a word means, look it up. Learn its etymology and notice what curious branches its original root has put forth. See if it has any other meanings that you didn’t know it had. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms. What is the difference between “cajole,” “wheedle,” “blandish” and “coax”?
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, © 1976

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