Farnsworth’s Classical English Style: “What makes writing powerful and memorable? His answer: oppositions and contrasts.”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Barton Swaim on the book Farnsworth’s Classical English Style:

Good writing is efficient writing. The ability to say a thing clearly and directly is rather to be chosen than great riches. All the books on English style say so, and they are right. But efficiency, Ward Farnsworth rightly insists, is only the beginning. Although “efficiency is the most important value in most kinds of writing,” he writes in “Farnsworth’s Classical English Style,” “it isn’t the only value. Lincoln’s writing is clear, but most writing that is clear sounds nothing like Lincoln’s and has none of its beauty or strength.”

Mr. Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas law school and the author of two other eponymous titles, on rhetoric and metaphor, has written this latest book to explain what makes efficient writing powerful and memorable. His answer: oppositions and contrasts. Careful writers are usually familiar with the advice to vary sentence length—and sound advice it is—but Mr. Farnsworth counsels other forms of variation, too: between abstract and concrete words, weak and strong endings, and literal and figurative phrases. . . .

Many style books urge writers to favor simple words over bigger ones, and that is not terrible advice, but Mr. Farnsworth asks us to distinguish between Saxon and Latinate words and to set them against each other to achieve various outcomes. Saxon words are Germanic in origin and tend to be short (good, light, man, house). Latinate words, typically multisyllabic and more abstract, came to English through French and often appear as different parts of speech (proper, property, propriety, appropriate). Now consider what Mr. Farnsworth calls the “Saxon finish”: rendering the bulk of a sentence or paragraph in Latinate words, and ending with Saxon plainness. . . .Thus Churchill: “The truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it, ignorance may deride it, malice may distort it, but there it is.” The last four monosyllables capture the point.

That Sir Winston is one of this book’s presiding spirits makes sense. “Churchill lived by phrase-making,” Roy Jenkins observed in his biography. “He thought rhetorically, and was constantly in danger of his policy being made by his phrases rather than vice versa.”. . .

In general, and especially when you want to draw particular attention to a sentence, put the crucial words last. Punchlines work that way for a reason. You want to reveal the meaning all at once, not gradually. I say this with some conviction because I once worked as a writer for a public figure who preferred all his sentences to trail off in dependent clauses, a bit like this one, as though the sentence wouldn’t work properly until it had a little explanatory addendum. I think he felt meandering sentences conveyed nuanced thought or an even temperament, but the effect, over the course of several paragraphs, was to render his written productions almost totally unreadable.

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