Tuesday, 7 April 2009

On Style

It's a tricky thing: style. That colon, for instance. That one just there. True, it did generate a subtle stylistic frisson, but was it absolutely necessary? Or, indeed, that 'absolutely'. One might argue that the very concept of necessity carries within it the notion of absoluteness. Or perhaps 'you' might argue that, depending on whether I'm trying to be academically aloof, or vaguely chummy? Which would you prefer? Honestly, I can do either.

Sadly, there are people out there in this crazy old world of ours that wouldn't recognise the intentional irony in using the phrase 'crazy old world of ours' if aforementioned intentional irony cavorted around in front of them wearing an extremely silly hat. The shades of subtlety and nuance that constitute the intricate tools of the writer's trade might as well, in many people's books, be lobbed in the bin and replaced with a simple, but very big, hammer. Want to say something funny? Don't bother your little head about the complexities of wit. Why, simply append an exclamation mark to the end of your remark. Oh, you want it to be really funny? No worries. Simply append two exclamation marks. Example:

I'm going on holiday next week.

Lucky thing!! Wish I was!!

And as if by magic (deliberate cliche) you have suddenly become a 'right laugh'. Although you will be sadly oblivious to the damning indictment implied in those inverted commas, clamped around you like a neck-brace on a simpleton. It's spot on, though, isn't it? It's right. I'm making sense, yeah? You can't doubt the veracity of that statement. A truer word was never spoken.

Ah, but who needs all this poncey prolix? If I may quote Mark Twain, who really ought to have known better: "I never write 'metropolis' when I can get paid the same amount for 'city'." Double plus good quote, eh? And while we're at it, let's ditch those irksome commas and apostrophes. Or even better, scatter them willy-nilly throughout our pro'se in the hope that, like in the parable, some of them, will land on fertile ground. After all, it's not like they're in short supply.

The primary role of language is communication. In the same way that the primary role of a house is to keep you warm and dry. And to give you somewhere to watch the telly. But who would want to live in a house made of mixed metaphors and hanging gerunds, if you'll allow me for a moment to mix my metaphors. No, people like to live in nice houses. And people should like to read and write and speak nice language. They should think about it. They should wonder whether that first 'and' shouldn't have been replaced with a comma, and then decided that no, it shouldn't, because the sing-song cadence fits nicely with the simplicity of the sentiment.

And perhaps one day, when this dream of mine comes true, things will be different. Maybe, in that impossible future, there will be a whole generation of people who will inwardly cringe, will silently reel, will feel a strange, ineffable hollowness in their viscera, when they notice, with mounting dread, that I haven't ended this sentence with a full stop


  1. That’s Twain nicely dismantled.

    Craftlessness is an affectation. Certain sorts of writers are commended (or commend themselves) for their use of language that is "pared down" or "stripped back" or "shorn of ornamentation" (I’ve just lifted that one from the dustjacket blurb of a Raymond Carver collection), and generally pretend to a truthfulness beyond the reach of peacocking wordsmiths and waffling phrasemakers.

    The truth is, of course, that a spare prose style (if it's any good) is as finely crafted – as contrived, that is – as the rococo constructions of, say, Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie – or Vladimir Nabokov, who made the following plea: “The main favour I ask of the serious critic is sufficient perceptiveness to understand that, whatever term or trope I use, my purpose is not to be facetiously flashy or grotesquely obscure but to express what I feel and think with the utmost truthfulness and perception.”

    Plainness can be a powerful effect, but it’s important to remember that it IS an effect.

    This debate is particularly important when we’re considering fiction. When a novelist (or a poet: “I would be inclined to define a good poem of any length as a concentrate of good prose” – VN again) writes, it’s an act of creation rather than one of description. There’s no ‘real-world’ analogue of what is written – what’s written is all there is.

    So, “the white dog” and “the snowy hound” aren’t two ways of describing the same thing – how could they be, when this supposed “same thing” doesn’t exist? They’re two different things, two different creatures. Each exists only in the words used in its creation.

    All of which is rather hard on the brain.

  2. Hello James. Richard sent me here, and I thank him for it. Plenty of good sense in your post, and in Richard's comment.

    The end of your last sentence came as a relief, because I began to expect its severance before the final noun. It reminded me of Anton Rubinstein's wife, who ended the composer's lie-ins by playing an unresolved chord on his piano.

  3. I should perhaps have written "directed" or "invited" instead of "sent". No fingers or pointed sticks pointed.

    You are right: the primary role of language is communication; amazing how easily this gets forgotten, and how badly it gets lost.

  4. How weird. I was thinking about that unresolved chord story too, but never knew whether it was about someone real or not and, if so, who. Thanks for enlightening me.