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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The Spectre of Jargon

My friend Maureen Mullarkey responded to Gowers Against Jargon (or, to be perfectly accurate, to the email to friends that become the weblog entry) by pointing me to Lionel Trilling’s remarks in The Liberal Imagination:

A specter haunts our culture — it is that people will eventually be unable to say “They fell in love and married,” let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, “Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.” . . . There can be no doubt whatever that [such language] constitutes a threat to the emotions and thus to life itself. . . .

[T]o call ourselves the people of the idea is to flatter ourselves. We are rather the people of ideology, which is a very different thing. Ideology is not the product of thought, it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties but of whose meaning and consequences in activity we have no clear understanding. The nature of ideology may in part be understood from its tendency to develop the sort of language I parodied, and scarcely parodied, a moment ago.

Here’s Maureen’s website, including both her painting and her writing, which I very much commend.

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Charles Murray On How Words Get Lost

Two friends, Judy Warner and Todd Speidell, pointed me to Charles Murray’s short article These 9 Words Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean, taken from his new book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead. All the mistakes he noted were, I was gratified to see, mistakes that annoy me too, and for the same reason: that each combination of two words that once had different meaning and each broadening of the meaning of a word that once had a precise meaning robs us of a useful word. Here are two examples from the article:

Disinterested used to mean uninterested.
The meaning of disinterested is “free of bias and self-interest.” It is essential that a judge be disinterested, for example. Disinterested does NOT, repeat NOT, mean “lack of interest” or “uninterested.” I put this so emphatically because we’re not talking just about proper usage. Disinterest used in its correct sense is on its last legs — I’ve been appalled to see it misused in articles in the Washington Post and other major publications. English does not have another word that conveys the meaning of disinterested as economically. If we lose the distinctive meaning of the word, we have measurably degraded our ability to express ourselves in English.


Masterful used to mean masterly.
When people use masterful, they almost always really mean masterly: performing in an extremely skillful and accomplished way. As in the case of disinterested, we are in danger of losing a useful word for which we have no ready alternative. If you want to describe someone who exhibits the qualities of a person who is confidently and effectively in authority, with connotations of power and dominance, masterful is the perfect word. Use masterly when you want to compliment someone for exhibiting a high level of skill.

The second distinction almost no one makes. I wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t found it in a list of words often confused in a book on writing I happened to pick up and glance at one day.

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Johnson & Johnson Tells the Truth, Which Isn’t Enough

One can tell the exact truth and still mislead, and in fact tell the exact truth in order to mislead. Tylenol, used in ways people may unknowingly use it, can damage the liver and even kill people. According to Pro Publica, its marketing campaign the unit of Johnson & Johnson that makes Tylenol, McNeil Consumer Healthcare,

burnish[ed] Tylenol’s image while usually avoiding claims of absolute safety or zero side effects. One slogan: “The brand of pain reliever that doctors recommend more than any other.” Another: “Trust TYLENOL. Hospitals do.”

“We never use the word ‘safe’ in our advertising,” said Anthony Temple, McNeil’s longtime medical director, in a legal case in 1993. “We will say ‘a superior safety profile’ or some language to suggest its relative safety to other” over-the-counter pain relievers.

. . . Two years later, in 1977, the FDA’s expert panel delivered its 1,200-page report on pain relievers.

While the committee found that acetaminophen was generally safe when used as directed, it warned that “some advertising for acetaminophen gives the impression that it is much safer than aspirin.” So the panelists urged the FDA to add a clear, specific warning to the acetaminophen label.

The language the panel suggested: “Do not exceed recommended dosage because severe liver damage may occur.” The panel had only advisory power, but it felt so strongly that it told the FDA the warning was “obligatory.”

The company, of course, resisted. The FDA took a decade to offer a “tentative” ruling that didn’t require the company to warn its customers about the dangers of the drug to the liver.

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Christie’s Word Blur

I like “word blur,” a term I’d never heard before, and the writer’s explanation in Missing from Christie’s proof of innocence claim: the proof.

The lawyer, Randy Mastro of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, released a statement Tuesday, saying, “The governor’s office is fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s investigation, and in that regard, has not publicly released accounts of interviews conducted in connection with the Gibson Dunn investigation.”

Note, carefully, the phrase “in that regard.”

This is a word blur, with a resemblance to actual English, though not its substance. It sounds as if Mr. Christie can’t release the interviews done by his own lawyer, proving his innocence, because the federal prosecutors don’t want him to.

Is that how we are supposed to take this statement? That the feds have hushed Mr. Christie?

When those questions were put to the governor’s office, his spokesman refused to answer.

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Gowers Against Jargon

On Sir Earnest Gowers and his Complete Plain Words, one of the books on writing I recommend to people, an article from the Telegraph titled, not surprisingly,  Speak Plainly. Nothing new but some entertaining examples. Gowers hated jargon “above all,”

partly because it was impossible to understand, and partly because it demeaned people by making them feel stupid. The more monolithic bureaucracies became, Gowers felt, the more they reinforced their remoteness by using impenetrable language. He suggested three golden rules that everyone in government and business should abide by: “Be short, be simple and be human.”

. . . At this point I shall throw in this recent example from a report commissioned by the Government Equalities Office for bad measure: “Finally, in pursuit of the above, it is also a shrewd moment to take advantage of a more open stance in shaping policy priorities and implementation mechanisms. . . . Open policymaking, therefore, is a naturally structural corollary to behaviour change on the agenda of modernising government and driving effective ­public policy.”

. . . Then there are the buzzwords that proliferate like Duracell bunnies: “eventuate”, “leverage”, “modalities”, as well as the unholy trinity of “restructuring”, “rightsizing” and “shake-up” – all of which, of course, mean exactly the same thing: redundancies. And herein, perhaps, lies one of the reasons why jargon has become so widespread – because it enables people to do nasty things to one another without having their consciences tweaked.

. . . After the London bombings in 2005, the coroner found that there had been delays in caring for some of the victims because people working for the different emergency services had been unable to understand each other’s jargon. He went on to declare – irrefutably – “In a life-threatening situation everyone should be able to understand what everyone else is saying.” As a result of this, the various emergency services got together to work out a way of ensuring this never happened again. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that they decided the solution was to compile something called an “Emergency Responder Interoperability Lexicon”, which would then be “cascaded” through various training courses.

The rest of the article is less satisfactory. The writer claims that for Gowers, “Rules were essentially there to be broken,” which misreads him badly. He did write a book of instructions, after all, with a great many firm statements about what writers should do and not do. The writer himself clearly agrees with his condemnation of jargon, which expresses a rule – a rule to be generally observed and rarely broken –  even if he didn’t formulate it as a rule.

The writer’s evidence for his claim is Gowers’ statement that “One can no more write good English than one can compose good music by merely keeping to the rules” (note that “merely”). This is perfectly true and does not in any way suggest that rules are there to be broken, much less that they’re essentially there to be broken. It’s distressing that someone writing on such a book can hold such a silly idea and attribute it to Gowers.

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Penguin Shows the Way

Very late, but in case  you didn’t see Penguin’s press release about their new series Penguin Now!, here it is. The series will replace all full stops with exclamation marks, as a way of reaching younger readers formed by the immediacy of cell phones and similar devices.

One of their editors, Mae Dappersonne, explains:

“By using exclamation marks over and over again, the reader is reminded of the urgency of the story at the end of every sentence. It’s a great way of preventing potentially inattentive readers from tuning out, putting the book down and wandering off, without altering the original text too much.

“Also, exclamation marks are intrinsically just plain fun, adding an air of frivolity and serving to soften the edges of some of the heady subject matter to be found in a great deal of classic literature. We think it’ll make them more palatable for people who want to read these great books without getting depressed.”

Among the examples in the press release is this from Dostoevky’s Crime and Punishment:

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart! The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth!

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Stephen King’s Rules for Writing

Stephen King’s rules are directed to fiction writers but most of them apply to every other kind. I endorse them all but would heavily qualify the “You can write!” last two to “You can write! But probably just for your mother.” Particularly interesting is number 11:

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the second half of that sentence in any such list, yet it’s crucial. Stability and domesticity help you write, especially to write well over decades. This is true for single people as well, though their forms of stability and domesticity will be different, and will take a different kind of effort to maintain.

Too many otherwise sensible people think of the writer as the one who sacrifices everything for his art. They think this not just of great poets and novelists but of themselves, even if they’re just writing items for a weblog seven people read. This way of thinking about your vocation may produce one or two good works, and maybe a few more if you’re a genius (which you’re not), but it ends badly not just for the writer and usually for many people associated with him but for his writing.

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Writers Against Editors

A story about the journalist Richard Ben Cramer writing “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” for Esquire. Whether he was right about the disputed 1,500 words I have no idea but my sympathies are with the editor.

[Cramer's editor, David Hirshey] says that Cramer wouldn’t accept the 1,500 words that Esquire’s managing editor demanded be cut. As the final touches were being put on the issue, Hirshey was at a black-tie affair and couldn’t be reached when Cramer struck.

“His first stop was the copy department,” said Hirshey, “where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that I had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call me at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000-word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them I had given him permission and they were welcome to check with me. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’”

The next morning Hirshey arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of long-stem red roses at the receptionists’ desk addressed to the copy, art, and production departments. All three had the same note attached: “Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.”

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To Get All Moralistic

Continuing the thoughts on editing begun in Bad Editing:

Granted that bad or little editing may help a magazine or newspaper sell copies, I think, to get all moralistic, that the editor who doesn’t edit closely and force the writer to write better has failed at his craft. “My craft is creating a publication that attracts readers and makes money” is not a defense.

The editor who doesn’t do what he can to make the writing better fails the people who agree with the writer by not giving them the quality of argument they need, and he fails those who don’t by not presenting them with arguments they have to engage rather than blowing off. He’s called to help writers say something that is not only more accessible but more truthful than they could have said on their own. 

Many writers will resist this kind of editing, and understandably enough. They thought well of the article they’d sent you, expecting you to refine the writing here and there, and find you either suggesting substantial revisions to the writing or asking them to clarify, change, remove, add, nuance, or rethink ideas they’d thought finished and definitive, or both. It can be a shock.

When the editor points out what he thinks needs to be done, the good writer will force himself to think through his writing or his ideas more deeply, assuming that even if the editor is wrong, readers like the editor may have the same questions and reactions. He may well push back, which the good editor will expect, but he will push back only after carefully considering the editor’s suggestions.

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