I have been a disciple of George Orwell, his rules on writing simply and clearly expressed plainly and amusingly in Politics and the English Language, and his statement that “good prose is like a window pane”–you see straight through it to the matter being conveyed. Indeed, the BMJ will this week post a blog in which I push and elaborate that message.

Now: recantation.

This morning in the closing pages of Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase I read:

“Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.”

I agree and disagree.

Forsyth has in his book run through all the figures of rhetoric and shown beyond dispute how they can be used to create beautiful and memorable writing, much of which is far from simple and plain. The book is filled with wonderful quotes, most of them well known because the figures have been used so effectively, although often unconsciously. Many of the quotes obscure meaning, but beautifully.

The figures of rhetoric were devised by the Greeks and the Romans and taught in English grammar schools in the time of Shakespeare. Shakespeare used them to great effect. Now they are not taught, but many–perhaps all–great writers use them unconsciously.

Where I depart from Forsyth is in his last line: “To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.” Most people dress most of the time for utility–I imagine that even Forsyth does–and most writing is for utility. Certainly scientific writing is. And for utility it is much better to follow the simple rules of Orwell (short words, short paragraphs, use the active voice, prefer the Anglo-Saxon to the Latin, etc) than attempt when writing about the complications of hysterectomies to use the figures of rhetoric.

Even if you could write your scientific paper in the style of Shakespeare, Proust, Dickens, or Roth it would be unwise to do so. And 99.9% of us simply can’t.

Recantation: partial.


I do recommend Forsyth’s book, and, mainly to try and get the figures into my head, I’m summarising them one by one on my blog. I’ve done some already.




2 thoughts on “Recantation

  1. These words were written for the purpose intended.
    The purpose was lost. The sentence ne’er ended.
    This writer wanted no reader offended.
    His writing style was never amended.


  2. Pingback: The figures of rhetoric XI: Hypotaxis and Parataxis (and Polysyndeton and Asyndeton): short and long, long, convuluted sentences | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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