Saturday, February 04, 2012

What Style Is, from a Century Ago

File:Arthur Quiller-Couch.jpg
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944)
 author of On the Art of Writing (1916)
I have often recommended books on writing style, notably Artful Sentences, The Art of Styling Sentences,  and Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Opinions on style are as numerous as there are readers of books, and such impressions have appeared in print for a long time. Remember George Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language"? It's 66 years old, but English professors still refer students to it.

In this vein, I would suggest a reading of selected portions of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's On the Art of Writing (1916), which comprises a collection of lectures Quiller-Couch delivered in the University of Cambridge nearly a century ago. Here are some gems from those lectures: 

  • The perfection of style is variety in unity, freedom, ease, clearness, the power of saying anything, and of striking any note in the scale of human feelings, without impropriety. (Part II, Paragraph 10)
  • I started by proposing that we try together to make appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing a hall-mark of anything turned out. (II, 11)
  • We laid down certain rules to help us in the way of straight Prose: (1) Always always prefer the concrete word to the abstract. (2) Almost always prefer the direct word to the circumlocution. (3) Generally, use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little auxiliary its’s and was’s, and its participles getting into the light of your adjectives, which should be few. For, as a rough law, by his use of the straight verb and by his economy of adjectives you can tell a man’s style, if it be masculine or neuter, writing or ‘composition.’ ... (4) Prefer the short word to the long.  (5) Prefer the Saxon [English language] word to the Romance [Latin languages]. (VI, 20-26)
  • You will never begin to understand literature until you understand something of life. (X, 32)
  • This then is Style. As technically manifested in Literature it is the power to touch with ease, grace, precision, any note in the gamut of human thought or emotion. (XII, 34)
While some of Quiller-Couch's ideas hold true today, writing has changed dramatically a century later in light of globalization, technology, and social networking. So stay tuned.