Writing tips from Teilhard de Chardin

June 17, 2013

Lately I read a collection of letters by the priest, palaeontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, sent to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon during World War I, where he acted as stretcher-bearer on the front lines and won several medals for bravery and service.

The letters were translated from the French by René Hague and published in English as The Making of a Mind: Letters from a SoldierPriest 1914–1919. They show a side of Teilhard I had not previously seen, having read only some of his books on evolution and theology.

Teilhard’s letters include this passage of writing advice he offered his cousin, who had sent him one of her lectures for comment:

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An aposiopesis of the furious kind

December 7, 2011

From Samuel Beckett’s first novel, Murphy:

He broke into a sweat, lost all his yellow, his heart pounded, the garret spun round, he could not speak. When he could he said, in a voice new to Ticklepenny:

‘Have fire in this garret before night or—’

He stopped because he could not go on. It was an aposiopesis of the purest kind. Ticklepenny supplied the missing consequences in various versions, each one more painful than any that Murphy could have specified, terrifying taken all together.

Aposiopesis /ˌæpəsaɪəˈpiːsɪs/ “APuh-SYuh-PEE-sis” (audio) is a fancy rhetorical term for a familiar act: an abrupt breaking off of a thought, mid-sentence, often because of overwhelming emotion. Aposiopeses is the plural form, aposiopetic the adjectival.

The word entered English in the 1570s from Latin, which took it from the Greek aposiōpēsis, from aposiōpan, “to become silent”; siōpē means “silence”. In writing it is signalled by an em dash, as in Beckett, above, or by an ellipsis, as used by P.G. Wodehouse in The Adventures of Sally:

“So…” said Mr. Carmyle, becoming articulate, and allowed an impressive aposiopesis to take the place of the rest of the speech. A cold fury had gripped him.

Sometimes the speaker continues with a separate thought (“Why I oughta— C’mere you little—”); the critical thing is that one thought is interrupted because the speaker is unable or unwilling to finish the sentence.

The Simpsons has a famous recurring example: “Why you little—!”

The Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery

November 8, 2011

I received an email lately about an admirable new website, The Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery, that stores and classifies examples of “interesting sentence- and paragraph-level patterns, including figures of speech, grammatical-syntactic structures, and other rhetorical devices”.

It was created by David Clark, an English teacher who sees the educational value of collecting and systematically arranging sentences that exemplify these literary-linguistic structures and devices. (The project was also motivated by “unadulterated nerdiness”, something language enthusiasts will identify with.)

The portal offers a great range of categories, both familiar and obscure. Under hyperbole, for example, I found entertaining examples from Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce, Shakespeare, Flann O’Brien, and others. Imagery, smell has a solitary example from Annie Proulx, so that tag would benefit from readers’ submissions.

To get a feel for how it works, click around and see what happens. If you’re into language and literature, you’re likely to find it fun and edifying. David would love to hear comments and suggestions, and he invites readers to use and share the site and contribute examples to its database. As he says: the bigger it becomes, the more valuable it can be.

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.