Notes on the plain style

The plain style of writing lies between the flat and ornate styles. As its name indicates, it is not verbose or needlessly complicated. Nor is it dull or bland. It is characterised by clear syntax, precise word choice, natural emphasis and unobtrusive grammar. The plain style is effective, economical and useful. Its great versatility means that it can accommodate just about any stylistic flourish, linguistic device and authorial personality – but with restraint rather than indulgence.

We’re not born with an innate ability to read. Without education and its application, these letters and marks would make no sense to us. We’ve trained our brains to decode languages – to convert squiggles on a page or screen into sense in our minds. The neurobiological machinery required to perform this decoding is complicated enough; it is made even more complicated by gobbledygook.

The plain style puts less strain on the brain. It’s relatively easy to read, and has minimal jargon and ambiguity. Its punctuation serves the text rather than interfering with it. It uses the most appropriate words and structures to get the writer’s points across with little fuss and affect. Sense flows from the text, instead of being hidden in it or obscured by it. The reader doesn’t waste time re-reading sentences in search of subjects, predicates, points and meaning – these are already clear. The hard work has already been done.

Rewriting comprises much of this work, because the plain style does not emerge automatically: it requires attention and application. Often it’s only when we look back at our writing that we notice imprecision, filler phrases, lack of ‘flow’ and other shortcomings. Then we need to analyse, prune, re-arrange and variously modify our writing to optimise its intended effect, which is usually some form of communication. The plain style can be strong, succinct, graceful and unpretentious, and is therefore very well suited to formal writing.

4 Responses to Notes on the plain style

  1. skonieczna says:

    Well and… plainly written.
    Quite useful as well for a student (non-native speaker) who is asked to write an academical thesis (read: myself)
    I’m enchanted by this blog Stan. Your editorial, linguistic precision and the eye (shall write: ear or tongue) for detail is impressive. It only makes me even more conscious of my usage of English and, perhaps naturally, even more frustrated by a lack of flair that seems to be given only to those, who were born into this very language…
    As you may have noticed – I use ‘…’ punctuation mark quite often, especially at the end of the sentences. For me is like a letting my thought (expressed in a sentence) to go, to resonate in the ‘…’ space. How not to abuse it? Thanks. Katarzyna

  2. Stan says:

    Thank you for the contribution and kind remarks, Katarzyna. I’m glad you find the blog useful.

    Style is an important consideration in clear communication, but it seems to emerge naturally from personality and application, rather than being something a writer deliberately creates. Charles Darwin wrote that he never studied style, that all he did was “try to get the subject as clear as I can in my head, and express it in the commonest language which occurs to me. But I generally have to think a good deal before the simplest arrangement occurs to me.” This is sound advice, but most people find it easier to write first and then re-arrange as required.

    You oughtn’t to feel frustrated by a perceived lack of flair. The “tell-tale” signs in your prose may reveal that you are a non-native speaker, but they also accentuate your articulacy and careful attention. (As a fellow fan of Lewis Carroll, you will perhaps appreciate the paradox!) There is, of course, always room for improvement; that goes for everyone, not least myself.

    Yes, I noticed your frequent use of the ellipsis. It has two main uses: to indicate missing words in a quotation, and to trail off into unspoken territory, usually at the end of sentences. There is nothing inherently wrong with the latter technique, but it is inadvisable in some formal writing, at least when done to excess. It appears comfortably in informal writing and some fiction writing, especially at the end of a paragraph or chapter.

    I think that part of the attraction of the symbol derives from the imperfect fit between our thoughts and our words. Thoughts comprise not just words but images, sensations, memories, impressions, intuitions, and so on (mine do, anyway); the degree to which we can express this jumble in words is variable, to say the least. It occasionally seems appropriate to add a few dots as though to suggest something like: “Think on this for a moment”; “Imagine what you want”; or “There’s more to this idea, but that will do for now”. Or as you nicely put it, “to resonate in the ‘…’ space.” There is always a lot of information left implicit and unsaid (or unwritten). Ellipses are not necessary to convey this idea, though they can serve to underline it.

    Ellipses may be habit-forming, so a little discipline will be required to finish some thoughts with a full stop, since these will seem rather definitive or blunt by comparison. Finishing with a full stop confers upon prose a crisper, sharper and more emphatic conclusion. This won’t always be what you want or what the idea seems to require: there will be times when you feel you must use an ellipsis. There is nothing wrong with that. But at other times, though you might be tempted to trail off, try a full stop and see how it sounds, looks, and works.

  3. […] Authority’s example into readable and unambiguous English. I will instead refer readers to an earlier post on Sentence first, concerning the plain style and its advantages in formal writing. ‘Notes on the plain style’ […]

  4. […] “Notes on the plain style” by Stan Carey, Sentence first blog. And read the New York Times review of Dillard’s book […]

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