Monday, August 15, 2005

Let meaning choose

Writers can be very, very dull on the subject of writing. There are myriad books, websites and blogs detailing aspects of The Craft, debating the use of the serial comma, or ranting against particular phrases, quirks of punctuation and things-they-should-still-teach-in-schools. There's an awful lot of smug, not actually practical, no-you're-wronging involved.

As I often have to explain as part of my job, there's no general consensus on style. Really. While correct spelling has been agreed for hundreds of years, punctuation is still largely a matter of taste. For every style guru who'll insist on one rule, there’s another expert who'll vehemently disagree.

Kingsley Amis put it very nicely: there are those to be scorned because they know/care less about punctuation and grammar than you do, and those to be scorned because they know/care more; that is, there are berks and there are wankers.

I've just been sent this link to Orwell's "Politics and the English Language", which feels disturbingly topical for something sixty years old. It's a manifesto for clarity in writing and thinking, and everyone should read it. You don't need to know the difference between a noun and an adjective, nor why the split infinitive is perfectly acceptable English, nor any rules for hyphens, semi-colons and commas. These will all come, of their own accord, just so long as your meaning is clear.
"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
  • What am I trying to say?
  • What words will express it?
  • What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  • Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
  • Could I put it more shortly?
  • Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?"

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