Guidelines for Writing Perspicuously

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"I've got a little black book with my poems in..."

The voice of "Pink" floated through my head as my advisor handed me a tiny black book that he had found when cleaning out his office. Part of my research is looking at the "rules" of writing, and this tiny volume was an ancient look at what passed for good writing many years ago.

It wasn't until I got home and looked the book up on Google when I realized what I was holding in my hand. The official title of the book is "Murray's English Grammar: With Several Important Alterations, and Comprising Copious Exercises on All the Definitions and Rules : Together with a Short Systematic View of the Formation and Derivation of Words". Whew. And from what I can tell from Google, the edition I was holding in my hand was published in 1850.

And no, that is not a typo. My advisor had handed me a 163 year old book to read.

My research interest is focused on investigating high-quality writing, so the last section of the book was the most appropriate for me -- "Rules and observations for assisting young persons to write with perspicuity and accuracy" (Owen, 1850). Should I be embarrassed that I had to look up "perspicuity"? In any case, now I know that it means "clearly expressed and easily understood" (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2010).

The rules outlined in this section are quite different from the ones I talked about yesterday from The Writer's Diet. Whereas the Writer's Diet breaks things down into parts of speech, the Murray's book has a more holistic approach. The rules are categorized into: The proper disposition of words, unity, strength, and judicious use of figures of speech.

Here are some examples from each section:

The proper disposition of words:

  • Words that are closely related should be near each other in a sentence. For example, adverbs and relative pronouns should be near the words they modify. (Ok, this one makes sense.)

Unity:

  • The scene (basically the subject) should not change inside a sentence
  • Avoid long parenthetical remarks inside sentences

(Both of these are ok, I guess. But the next section gets a bit wacky, in my opinion.)

Strength:

  • Remove all unnecessary words. (But what makes a word unnecessary?)
  • Do not split a preposition from the noun that follow it. (Ok.)
  • Do not leave out relative pronouns, such as "whom". (The example he gives here is "The one whom I love", which seems a bit old-fashioned to my ears. "The one I love" sounds better to me.)
  • Usually the important idea goes at the beginning of a sentence, but sometimes putting it at the end "gives weight" to a sentence. (This is a meaningless rule isn't it? Should it read, "Don't put the important idea in the middle"?)
  • If a sentence has two parts, the longer part should go second.
  • A weaker assertion should never come after a stronger one. (But no rules are given for how to judge strength.)
  • Do not end a sentence with an adverb, preposition, or any inconsiderable word such as "it". (Unfortunately, the author does not explain what makes a word inconsiderable!)
  • Pay attention to the sound and flow of the words in a sentence. The author had some interesting sub-rules to this one:

    • if a word ends with a vowel, the next one should start with a consonant

    • but if can not, then the vowels should be a long and a short one, or the consonants liquid and mute

    • do not have strings of long and short words together

And finally, the last section, which seems fairly straightforward:

Judicious use of figures of speech.


  • No mixed metaphors and no forced metaphors. In other words, metaphors should be easy to understand. (Duh. In order to write with perspicuity, write perspicuously.)

Many of these rules for writers are great examples of prescriptive advice which has no logic and nothing to back it up. Someone, somewhere decided they were good rules and set them in stone to be followed slavishly for generations.

This is in direct contrast to the rules from The Writer's Diet, which are "based on more than 1,000 writing samples" (Sword, n.d.). At least Sword used evidence to create her rules. My research will also be looking for evidence from real people writing real English in real communications. It is my hope that I can use this evidence to describe what good writing really is.


References

New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

Owen, J. J. (1850). Murray's English Grammar: With Several Important Alterations, and Comprising Copious Exercises on All the Definitions and Rules : Together with a Short Systematic View of the Formation and Derivation of Words. Printed by Richardson and Son, London.

Sword, Helen (n.d.). Frequently asked questions about the WritersDiet Test. Retrieved 10 July 2013 from http://www.writersdiet.com/WT.php?faq

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This page contains a single entry by Stuart published on July 10, 2013 11:08 PM.

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