F.L. Lucas on style: ‘personality clothed in words’

July 19, 2017

Two of my favourite books on writing have the same one-word title: Style. Years ago I shared an essay by the author of the older Style, Frank Laurence Lucas, and having recently revisited his book, I’ll post a few excerpts.

First published in 1955, Lucas’s Style has dated in certain respects (try to ignore the generic male pronouns), but it is still full of sound advice and insights on the art and mechanics of composition. So then: What is style? Lucas describes it as:

a means by which a human being gains contact with others; it is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech. If handwriting reveals character, style reveals it still more – unless it is so colourless and lifeless as not really to be a style at all. The fundamental thing, therefore, is not technique, useful though that may be; if a writer’s personality repels, it will not avail him to eschew split infinitives, to master the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’, to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage by heart. Soul is more than syntax. If your readers dislike you, they will dislike what you say.

Three chapters are titled ‘Courtesy to Readers’. The first, on clarity, concludes with a note on how to achieve it:

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Book spine poem #39: Language, Language!

December 18, 2016

My latest piece of doggerel in book-spine form has an obvious theme.


Language, Language!

Language, language!
The story of language.
Language, slanguage
Spoken here: a history of
Language, a history of
Writing: style, style,
Style in fiction,
Linguistics and style,
Language and linguistics.
What is linguistics?
Understanding language.


[click to enlarge]


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F. L. Lucas on clarity and brevity

October 28, 2011

A reference to F. L. Lucas (1894–1967) led me to his essay On the Fascination of Style, which is likely to be of interest to writers and editors, particularly those who practise the plain style.

A literary critic, poet and professor, Lucas was greatly concerned with how we express ourselves and how, if we apply ourselves, we can do so more effectively.

Though one cannot teach people to write well, one can sometimes teach them to write rather better. One can give a certain number of hints, which often seem boringly obvious – only experience shows they are not.

Steeped as he was in the classics and traditional literary styles, Lucas held some ideas that apply especially to very formal writing and will seem old-fashioned by contemporary attitudes. (Anthony Campbell, reviewing Lucas’s book Style, says the author “didn’t much care for the typewriter”.)

For example: though Lucas admired Americans’ talent for imagery, he “wince[d] at their fondness for slang”, which to him seemed “a kind of linguistic fungus; as poisonous, and as short-lived, as toadstools”. Prejudiced not only against slang but against an entire kingdom of life!

But his insights on style mostly hold up very well. After six years in a war department, where wordiness could choke communication and opacity could have dire consequences, he emerged “with more passion than ever for clarity and brevity, more loathing than ever for the obscure and the verbose”.

Clarity and brevity, he felt, follow from one of the two cornerstones of good style: respect for readers. (The other cornerstone is that the writer “should respect truth and himself; therefore honesty”.) But while clarity and brevity are a good beginning, they are

only a beginning. By themselves, they may remain bare and bleak. When Calvin Coolidge, asked by his wife what the preacher had preached on, replied “Sin,” and, asked what the preacher had said, replied “He was against it,” he was brief enough. But one hardly envies Mrs. Coolidge.

Though Lucas acknowledged the world’s increasing complexity, he wondered “how many of our complexities remain futile, how many of our artificialities false”:

Simplicity too can be subtle – as the straight lines of a Greek temple, like the Parthenon at Athens, are delicately curved, in order to look straighter still.

You can read the rest of On the Fascination of Style here.