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AN APPROACH TO STYLE





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Text 14

(With a List of Reminders)

(from “The Elements of Style”)

■ Do not inject opinion.

Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one s views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion. Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work. Similarly, to air one's views at an improper time may be in bad taste. If you have received a letter inviting you to speak at the dedication of a new cat hospital, and you hate cats, your reply, declining the invitation, does not necessarily have to cover the full range of your emotions. You must make it clear that you will not attend, but you do not have to let fly at cats. The writer of the letter asked a civil question; attack cats, then, only if you can do so with good humor, good taste, and in such a way that your answer will be courteous as well as responsive. Since you are out of sympathy with cats, you may quite properly give this as a reason for not appearing at the ded­icatory ceremonies of a cat hospital. But bear in mind that your opinion of cats was not sought, only your services as a speaker. Try to keep things straight.

Use figures of speech sparingly.

The simile is a common device and a useful one, but sim­iles coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can't be expected to compare every­thing with something else, and no relief in sight.

When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don't start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.

■. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.

Do not use initials for the names of organizations or movements unless you are certain the initials will be readi­ly understood. Write things out. Not everyone knows that MADD means Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and even if everyone did, there are babies being born every minute who will someday encounter the name for the first time. They deserve to see the words, not simply the initials. A



good rule is to start your article by writing out names in full, and then, later, when your readers have got their bearings, to shorten them.

Many shortcuts are self-defeating; they waste the read­er's time instead of conserving it. There are all sorts of rhetorical stratagems and devices that attract writers who hope to be pithy, but most of them are simply bothersome. The longest way round is usually the shortest way home, and the one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way.

Avoid foreign languages.

The writer will occasionally find it convenient or neces­sary to borrow from other languages. Some writers, how­ever, from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader's comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.

Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

Young writers will be drawn at every turn toward eccen­tricities in language. They will hear the beat of new vocab­ularies, the exciting rhythms of special segments of their society, each speaking a language of its own. All of us come under the spell of these unsettling drums; the problem for beginners is to listen to them, learn the words, feel the vibrations, and not be carried away.

Youths invariably speak to other youths in a tongue of their own devising: they renovate the language with a wild vigor, as they would a basement apartment. By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear, and we will be field­ing more recent ones that have come bouncing into our speech—some of them into our dictionary as well. A new word is always up for survival. Many do survive. Others grow stale and disappear. Most are, at least in their infancy, more appropriate to conversation than to composition.

Today, the language of advertising enjoys an enormous circulation. With its deliberate infractions of grammatical rules and its crossbreeding of the parts of speech, it pro­foundly influences the tongues and pens of children and adults. Your new kitchen range is so revolutionary it obso-letes all other ranges. Your counter top is beautiful because it is accessorized with gold-plated faucets. Your cigarette tastes good like a cigarette should. And, like the man says, you will want to try one. You will also, in all probability, want to try writing that way, using that language. You do so at your peril, for it is the language of mutilation.

Advertisers are quite understandably interested in what they call "attention getting." The man photographed must have lost an eye or grown a pink beard, or he must have three arms or be sitting wrong-end-to on a horse. This tech­nique is proper in its place, which is the world of selling, but the young writer had best not adopt the device of mutila­tion in ordinary composition, whose purpose is to engage, not paralyze, the readers senses. Buy the gold-plated faucets if you will, but do not accessorize your prose. To use the lan­guage well, do not begin by hacking it to bits; accept the whole body of it, cherish its classic form, its variety, and its richness.

Another segment of society that has constructed a lan­guage of its own is business. People in business say that toner cartridges are in short supply, that they have up­dated the next shipment of these cartridges, and that they will finalize their recommendations at the next meeting of the board. They are speaking a language familiar and dear to them. Its portentous nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure; executives walk among toner cartridges, caparisoned like knights. We should tolerate them—every person of spirit wants to ride a white horse. The only question is whether business vocabulary is help­ful to ordinary prose. Usually, the same ideas can be ex­pressed less formidably, if one makes the effort. A good many of the special words of business seem designed more to express the users dreams than to express a precise meaning. Not all such words, of course, can be dismissed summarily; indeed, no word in the language can be dismissed offhand by anyone who has a healthy curiosity. Update isn't a bad word; in the right setting it is useful. In the wrong setting, though, it is destructive, and the trouble with adopting coinages too quickly is that they will bedevil one by insinuating themselves where they do not belong. This may sound like rhetorical snobbery, or plain stuffiness; but you will discover, in the course of your work, that the setting of a word is just as restrictive as the setting of a jewel. The general rule here is to prefer the standard. Finalize, for instance, is not standard; it is special, and it is a peculiarly fuzzy and silly word. Does it mean "terminate," or does it mean "put into final form"? One can't be sure, really, what it means, and one gets the impression that the person using it doesn't know, either, and doesn't want to know.



The special vocabularies of the law, of the military, of gov­ernment are familiar to most of us. Even the world of criti­cism has a modest pouch of private words (luminous, taut), whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning over the wall. Of these critical words, Wolcott Gibbs once wrote, ". . . they are detached from the language and inflated like little bal­loons." The young writer should learn to spot them—words that at first glance seem freighted with delicious meaning but that soon burst in air, leaving nothing but a memory of bright sound.

The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time. To suggest that a young writer not swim in the main stream of this turbulence would be foolish indeed, and such is not the intent of these cautionary remarks. The intent is to sug­gest that in choosing between the formal and the informal, the regular and the offbeat, the general and the special, the orthodox and the heretical, the beginner err on the side of conservatism, on the side of established usage. No idiom is taboo, no accent forbidden; there is simply a better chance of doing well if the writer holds a steady course, enters the stream of English quietly, and does not thrash about.

"But," you may ask, "what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform ? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?" Answer: then be one. But do not forget that what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness—the disinclination to submit to discipline. Writing good standard English is no cinch, and before you have managed it you will have encountered enough rough coun­try to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit.

Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly prac­titioner once remarked, "Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar." This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and there­fore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style. If you write, you must believe—in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decent­ly who is distrustful of the readers intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.

Many references have been made in this book to "the reader," who has been much in the news. It is now neces­sary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the readers plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader's wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.

Full of belief, sustained and elevated by the power of purpose, armed with the rules of grammar, you are ready for exposure. At this point, you may well pattern yourself the fully exposed cow of Robert Louis Stevenson's rhyme. This friendly and commendable animal, you may recall, was "blown by all the winds that pass /And wet with all the showers."

And so must you as a young writer be. In our modern idiom, we would say that you must get wet all over. Mr. Stevenson, working in a plainer style, said it with felicity, and suddenly one cow, out of so many, received the gift of immortality. Like the steadfast writer, she is at home in the wind and the rain; and, thanks to one moment of felicity, she will live on and on and on.

 

 

LITERATURE

1. Александрова О.В., Болдырева Л.В., Долгина Е.А., Яковлева Е.В., Комова Т.А., Менджерицкая Е.О., Васильев В.В. Введение в функциональную англистику (Introduction to Functional Anglistics) / Под ред. О.В. Александровой. - М.: МГУ, 1998.

2. Akhmanova Olga, Idzelis Rolandas F. What is the English We Use? – M.: Moscow Univ. press, 1978.

3. Lakoff R., Johnson M. Metaphors we live by. – Chicago and London: The University if Chicago Press, 2003.

4. Pyles T., Algeo J. English. An Introduction to Language. – Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. – New York, Chcago, San Francisco, Atlanta, 1970.

5. Strunk W., White E.B. The Elements of Style. – Massachusetts: A Pearson Education Company , Needham Heights, ALLEN & BACON, 2000.

 

DICTIONARIES

 

1.Ахманова О.С. Словарь лингвистических терминов. – М.: Сов. Энциклопедия, 1966.

2. Большой англо-русский словарь. В 2-х т. Ок. 150 000 слов / Сост. Н.Н. Амосова, Ю.Д. Апресян, И.Р. Гальперин и др. / Под общим руководством И.Р. Гальперина. – 3 изд. – М.: Рус. яз., 1979.

3. Русско-английский словарь. Около 50 000 слов / Под общ. рук. проф. А.И. Смирницкого. Изд. 10-е под ред. проф. О.С. Ахмановой. – М.: Русский язык, 1975.

4. Hornby A.S. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. – London: Oxford University Press, 1974.

5. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. New Edition. – London: Longman, 1995.

6. Longman Idioms Dictionary. Over 6 000 idioms. – Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1998.

7. New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language. - Chicago; NY: 1975.

8. The University English Dictionary / Ed. by R.F. Patterson, M.A., D. Litt. – London in England: University Books, 1972.

 

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