Friday, January 22, 2010

A Latin lover's protest

William Zinsser (of "On Writing Well" fame) beats up on "Latinate" English in The American Scholar, blaming its "pompous" and "florid" vocabulary for all the modern sins of business bafflegab. Trevor Butterworth, responding in Forbes, calls BS on Zinsser, defending both Latin and Cicero against the clich├ęd calumny:
What constitutes "good" writing in the 20th and 21st centuries is more the result of ideology than a discovery of the innate purity of Anglo-Saxon thought and expression (so pure the Anglo-Saxons didn't sully themselves by writing much that is memorable beyond Beowulf).
I've written about Butterworth before -- he's also the author of a charming defense of the semicolon, "Pause Celebre," published in the Financial Times in 2005.

Hat tip: Chris Shea of Brainiac, my Globe Ideas colleague.


J.G. said...

Really? What about "The Battle of Maldon"?

Personally, I like them both. It isn't the length of the words that make good writing.

John McIntyre said...

Winston Churchill said that short words are best, and the old short words best of all, and he followed his own precept: "blood, toil, tears, and sweat." But if you look at his work as a whole, you will find that he could produce positively Augustan sentences.

Latinate words and constructions are as much a part of the heritage of English as the Anglo-Saxon, and a wise writer would not deprive himself of both resources.

Unknown said...

Can you explain the following pronunciation, please? The British pronounce "W" as "double u" as it stems from the Latin. How is it pronounced "dubyu" in the US?

Anonymous said...

And I call BS on Butterworth.

Butterworth's answer was both outright wrong and misleading. While Zinsser's writ could have noted fewer Latinates itself and could have been much better written, it was, more or less, spot on about the long Latinates and was hardly "illiterate" as Butterworth said.

Aside from those who had Latin crammed down their throats (and a few beslobbering Latin lovers) who can name those "great works" of Cicero? Or truthfully, any "great" Latin writing? Sadly, hella few folks have bother to learn Anglo-Saxon (also called Old English) but most know of Beowulf. Many know of the Iliad (Greek) yet haven't learned Greek. But, off the top of my head, I can't think of any "great", well-known Latin works … I should say, well known to those who have NOT learned Latin.

Butterworth's writ is a good byspel of why Zinsser is right. Butterworth needlessly notes long Latinates that does nothing for the writ but it does make Butterworth himself seem showy and overblown.

To be truthful, Zinsser would do better to follow his own rede. Here is a bit of what he wrote:

"First, a little history. The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy--they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free."

Here it is written without the Latinates:
"First, a little background. The English tung is taken from two main wellsprings. One is Latin, the overly posh tung of olden Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the forthright tung of England and northern Europe. The words taken from Latin are the foe--they will strangle and choke everything yu write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set yu free."

history - background works here
language - tung, the "tongue" spelling is French rooted.
derived - taken
sources - wellsprings, upsprings
florid - posh … I added overly
ancient - olden, or the little-known meaning of fern would work … fern Rome = ancient Rome
Anglo and Saxon both hav Teutonic/Germanic roots whence the Romans drew the words.
plain - forthright
enemy - foe
suffocate - choke
yu - the "you" spelling is French rooted.

Unknown said...

In reading his essay I'm half certain he was trolling, his straw-man rewriting of Thoreau suggests as much at any rate. I'm also curious as to which of these he considers to be only one syllable: because, deliberately, only, essential, nature, discover.

Mister Zinsser could have saved us all a lot of time and fuss if he'd stuck to these two sentences.

"Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn't comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen"

It entirely covers his frustration with people misusing words in a futile attempt at sophistication, without alienating those readers who use words well.

He's right that too many beginning writers are too eager to show off their vocabulary by attempting to cram it all into one labyrinthine sentence, but he's completely wrong in asserting that there is no use for complex words and sentences.

Short words and sentences do well to make writing pulse, to march to the drum's beat. Polysyllabic constructions rhythmically crescendo into an orchestral climax. Active sentences boldly proclaim themselves to the highest heavens. Whispered sweet caresses are gently wafted by passive phrasing into lovers' ears.

@maya Double U is the standard pronunciation of the letter W in the USA as well. Regional accents will clip this in various ways, most famously the Texas drawl which gave Bush Jr. the nickname "Dub-ya"(a being schwa here.)