Thursday, October 13, 2016

Plain Prose, or Not

A dozen years ago, overseas, I noticed a couple puzzling over a word in a novel, one of John Irving's. I offered my help--the word was "smitten", and then went on to a number of other words that the man had underlined. Both spoke excellent English, he from graduate and postgraduate studies in California, she from a former marriage to an Englishman. Still, there were words they hadn't encountered. All were familiar to me, but I realized on looking at them that they were words I would not expect to meet outside of novels or essays. I had not thought of John Irving as a writer who reaches for the unusual word--he is no Alexander Theroux or S.J. Perelman--yet here were these words.

More recently I have looked through books for passages that adults learning English might be able to read as class exercises. I have long taken it for granted that the best American writers of the 19th Century wrote a good plain style: think of Dana, Lincoln, Grant, Thoreau,  and Twain. And then I look, and think again.

There is the first paragraph of Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, a book I first read when about 13 years old:
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the
brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western
coast of North America.  As she was to get under weigh early in the
afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o'clock, in full
sea-rig, and with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three
year voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if
possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books
and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my
pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure.
Certainly that is plain enough. But I see a number of words or expressions that would require explanation: "brig", "under weigh", "sea-rig", "outfit" (in the sense used), "pursuits."

Lincoln passed for a very plain orator, justly so. Here is the third paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which
it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the
conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should
cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less
fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and pray to the
same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.  It may seem
strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in
wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us
judge not, that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be
answered--that of neither has been answered fully.
You have "magnitude", "duration", and on through to "wringing their bread".

There is Grant's famous note to Buckner:
SIR:--Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.
 World War II popularized the expression "unconditional surrender"--FDR knew his Grant--but how many native speakers of English understand it accurately, or can define "capitulation" or "armistice", or have seen "works" used in this sense?

Thoreau, I have always thought, writes plainly enough. Here are a few sentences from the chapter "Reading" in Walden:
I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled "Little Reading," which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to. There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of provender, for they suffer nothing to be wasted. If others are the machines to provide it, they are the machines to read it.
The words "form" and "convict" are not often used in these senses now, and I don't often see "provender" or "cormorant".

 Here is the first paragraph of Mark Twain's  Life on the Mississippi:
THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

I think that excellent clear prose. Yet is it for beginners? How many of us us have a sense of 45 degrees of longitude, for one thing? And barges have long superseded "flats and keels". (At the moment, I can't think how Twain could have imagined that Delaware was in the Mississippi watershed.)

A couple of weeks ago, another teacher brought in a piece from the Wall Street Journal for the students to read. A look through showed words and idioms that I would not expect a new student to know. At the end of every paragraph we explained three or four expressions: "trumpeted", "touted", "playing offense", and so on. I was wary from the start, having tried out the The Washington Post Express on students a couple of years ago without it yielding a return proportionate to the time spent.

The experiment with the Express made me realize what I had more or less known, that newspapers are written in a particular subset of English. It is one that I began learning more than fifty years ago now and hardly notice. It is not one I'd advise students to model their own writing on, not that I have ever been able to get students to write much of anything. It is worth learning in the long run, but it is of limited use in instruction.


  1. Your examples look like plain prose to me but that could be because I am a very old cormorant/ostrich. Remember,we had no television in our formative years and viewing (not reading) is now the norm.

  2. Unfortunately, I believe there is now a much larger gap between the natural vocabulary of the sort of writer who grew up loving words and the vocabulary of the average reader (and the situation of readers has changed, too, of course.)

    1. The decline in religious practice probably has something to do with this. Protestants of various congregations grew up listening to the Authorized Version of the Bible, and if Anglican to the Book of Common Prayer. The translation of the Bible used by Catholics was a good deal flatter, but the Catholic liturgy, catechisms, and prayers had a good deal of technical, commonly Latinate vocabulary.

  3. When I read the English writer Will Self my instant reaction when he uses little known vocabulary is irritation. But then I realise that these words do exist within the language and therefore I suppose they really ought to be used. It is strange though how there is a core of words known by all and then a vast number that are kept on high shelves for special occasions - usually, in my experience, those with their roots in Latin or Greek