Dorothy Sayers on Writing

A few thoughts on writing from Dorothy Sayers, taken from two essays in her collection Unpopular Opinions, “Plain English” and “The English Language.” Two notes: 1) Some quotes I include because her images are so good, though as quoted they may seem a little cryptic; and 2) though I tend to be neurotic about these things, even I think she frequently over-states things.

PLAIN ENGLISH (no date given)

This deals with what she calls “telegraphese,” a kind of writing we don’t see anymore, but some of her comments on it still apply to the kinds of writing we do see.

Not that telegraphese ever does, or ever could, in fact, save space; because one of the rules of this kind of writing is that every sentence has to have a fresh paragraph all to itself. . . . This breathless paragraphing presumably symbolizes vigor; and it is true that it leaves the reader with the sensation of having been vigorously bumped down a steep flight of steps.

On a over-long sentence:

There is a poor, tottering collection of broken-winded clauses if you like, each clinging with a gasp to the one before it like a chain of exhausted wanderers trying to haul themselves out of a quicksand.

On good writing (of which she goes on to give several examples):

Economy and vigor of style are attained, not by leaving out conjunctions and pronouns, but by seeing to it that no word is used which does not add something to the picture. . . . Masters of style waste no time in antics and grimaces; they make everything tell.


The test of good writing is a simple one. If a sentence puzzles or startles you, pull it to pieces. If it is good writing, then the harder you pull, the more tightly you will discover it to be woven together, and the more closely you examine it, the more meaning it will yield. But if it tumbles to bits easily — if you find its syntax dislocated, its epithets imprecise, its meaning vague or contradictory — then it is bad, and should be quickly thrown into the dustbin of oblivion; one should not keep rubbish lying about in the house of the mind.


The essay is, a little amusingly, marked by bog-standard English self-importance. “By English I mean English,” she writes about half-way through, describing the Scots, Irish, and Americans as “foreigners” who “speak our language as foreigners.” “[W]hile it is childlike and charming in us to enjoy their sing-song speech and their quaint foreign barbarisms, to imitate those things is childishness and folly. . . . We must not . . . give our pure gold for cowrie-shells or abandon our beautiful and useful grammatical tools because these barbarians do not know how to handle them.” One rolls one’s eyes.

On what most of us think about good writing:

“We think that it [the poor use of English] does not matter. This is the sin that the Church calls sloth.”

On the English language:

The English language has a deceptive air of simplicity: so have some little frocks; but they are not the kind that any fool can run up in half an hour with a machine. . . . [English] is a rich, noble, flexible,and sensitive because it combines an enormous vocabulary of mixed origin with a superlatively civilized and almost wholly analytical syntax. This means that we have not merely to learn a great number of words with their subtle distinctions of meaning and association, but to put them together in an order determined only by a logical process of thought. There is no good English with clear thinking, and (as some cynic has justly observed) “most people would die sooner than think, and most of them do.”

On the difference between shall and will, she writes (quite unfairly using as a target a line of dialogue from a novel):

Consider this sentence, taken from a short novel which contains no fewer than forty-three incorrect uses of “will” and “would”: “I am also thinking about getting some work. It should be easy, because I won’t be pushed by necessity.”

It looks like a failure of logic. If the speaker is determined not to be pushed by his necessity into whatever work shall offer itself,then, one would say, a man so neccessitous and so obstinate will not easily find work before he perishes of his necessities. But the context shows that the author does not mean this. He means: “I shall not be pushed by necessity (because I have plenty of money), and therefore afford to take a job with small pay; and that should be easy to find.”

Is this a trifling matter, not worth making clear? Then see how you can destroy the most beautiful parable in Scripture by using the one word for another: “I shall arise and go to my father and shall say unto him . . .” How jaunty the words are now; how cocksure how hypocritical; how they compel the sneering comment, “and the poor old blighter will fall for the sob-stuff again.”

Remember, too, how the late Lord Oxford, who was a stylist, refused on a famous occasion to surrender the hammer-stroke of “shall,” even when faced by a congregation of sibilants that might have daunted the most courageous orator: “We shall not sheathe the sword that we have not lightly drawn . . .”

Not promise; but prophecy.

She later attacks “the makers of jargon,” giving as an example what a newspaper called a “strongly-worded protest” from the Swansea and District Sunday Schools Union to the BBC:

“Having regard to the fact that the homes of many thousands of listeners are otherwise free from such pollution, its introduction into the family circle by means of wireless broadcast is deeply regretted and strongly resented as being liable to pollute the minds of young people whom we are trying to keep pure.”

Look at that great rambling circumlocution at the start, with its hanging participle and redundant abstractions! Looka t the flabby impersonality whereby the homes remain passively free from an abstract pollution! Look at the still flabbier impersonality of the “introduction and the “regret” and even of the “resentment”! Look at the timidity of the phrase “liable to pollute”! Not until the last relative clause is any living person made responsible for anything. “Strongly worded,” indeed! If the Swansea and District Sunday Schools Union had the courage to say what they mean, we might believe that they meant what they said:

“Since thousands of listeners take pains to keep such dirty stuff out of their homes, they deeply regret and strongly resent your thrusting it upon them by wireless; because they fear it may corrupt the young people they are trying to keep pure.”

That is personal; that is concrete; that, if you like, is plain speaking; it is also much better English.

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