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A Pedant's Guide to the English Language - Part Seven: Bad Style

“It’s not wrong but it’s bad style” – is the kind of phrase you’ve probably heard before. [1] It might be that some of you, if your early written education was anything like mine, still avoid beginning a sentence with “because”, for no other reason than that the ten-year-old version of yourself was prohibited from doing so. [2]


Since there are no codified standards for style, what represents “good” and “bad” English, for you will also hear these labels used, is very much a value judgement. Thus, whether “but”, “and”, or “because”, their suitability as sentence openers depends on whom you ask.


I’ve entitled this post “bad style” because we commonly hear about style in terms of what or how we shouldn’t write. Such individuals, those seeking to dictate to others how language should be, are known as prescriptivists; prescriptivists attach prestige to their own standards and deem other forms inferior.


An entertaining example of prescriptivism can be traced back to the sixteenth century, a time when numerous writers criticised the influence of Greek and Latin on English, branding the perceived linguistic interlopers “inkhorn terms”.[3] We are ourselves not unfamiliar with outcry against “foreign” influence. Even today, there are those who see in the prevalence of US English a hill worth dying on.[4]


Evidently, prescriptivist attitudes can be more fuelled by hysteria than good linguistic sense.[5] In this respect, the notion of imposing strict stylistic expectation is not only an uneasy imposition on an individual’s freedom of expression but also counterproductive. Prescriptivists get caught up in what not to do, rather than focusing on the good habits we might nurture in our writing.


Ergo, our concern should not be avoiding “bad” style, but rather cultivating stylish English. Style, we remember, is not a case of what, but of how. To achieve our purpose as writers, we have to engage the reader, to co-opt them into our goals. Keeping our vocabulary varied and fresh is one way to do this.


The more times a word is repeated, the more it loses its significance. I use “significance” as an example of this very phenomenon, for I’ve read many essays claiming that x, y, and z are all “significant” in some way or another. If everything is so important, how am I to distinguish between these different elements? The contrary effect is achieved, whereby I begin to pay less attention and begin to question whether these claims are even worth my consideration at all.


Undoubtedly, repeating yourself can sometimes be very helpful. Repetitions might create echoes in creative writing; in academia, repeated keywords can provide a solid argumentative framework. However, you should take care that you are writing on your terms, not simply because you could not think of the right word, an alternative, or a better one.


Writing with variety is not about showering your writing in words not seen by the outside world since Roget himself committed them to paper. Yet variety, as is said, is the spice of life and writing is no different. If your reader gets the impression that you are simply going through the motions, it is only natural that their attention will begin to drift.


Talking of Roget, having a dictionary and thesaurus to refer to helps any writer; the thesaurus provides synonyms and the dictionary a clear definition of the word and its origin. In this way, you are unlikely to misconstrue the context in which a word can be applied and highly likely to choose the correct word for a particular job. With the internet, you don’t even need to carry these hefty tomes around with you any more.


As I have previously advocated, taking inspiration from other writers, using them as style models, is also hugely beneficial. You can note down aspects of their style which you admire, from general tone to specific sentences you like. One thing the overriding majority of writers have in common is that they are eclectic readers and this is certainly no coincidence.


University students, for example, routinely read subject-specific articles from academics, drawing on these for comment in their own work. However, it might also be remembered that such pieces of criticism are interesting as much for their form as their content. They illustrate how experts within the field have written about it and can inform your approach, one way or another.


Finally, reading your word aloud is always good practice, whether to yourself or to others.


Often, we writers cannot see the wood from the trees but hearing our work offers a much-needed fresh perspective. Since writing is not only seen but also heard, reading aloud can be the final litmus test of whether or not you’ve produced a stylish text.


*If you struggle with this topic and others like it, get in touch with Short Proofing: we are here to help!

References


[1] If that sounds like a slight, it wasn’t intended as one…


[2] Certainly, you might count yourself lucky if the proscription of “because” to start a sentence was the only thing on the banned list. For instance, the splitting of infinitives, the insertion of words in between the infinitive form of the verb (to run, to be etc.), was once considered so grievous a linguistic misdemeanour as to warrant corporal punishment, to which one respondent to a 1983 English-language programme by the BBC attests:


One reason why the older generation feel so strongly about English grammar is that we were severely punished if we didn't obey the rules! One split infinitive, one whack; two split infinitives, two whacks; and so on,


quoted by David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, p. 91.


[3] The critics of “inkhornisms” were a linguistic purists, a sub-category of prescriptivist; linguistic purism is essentially language as an expression of nationalism or patriotism. Though it is outside the scope of our purpose to pursue this tangent, linguistic purisim is an interesting topic in itself. Particularly intriguing is the practice of minting neologisms (new words) as “native” competitors to alien invaders; this is exhibited by Ralph Lever’s 1573 tome, entitled The arte of reason, rightly termed, witcraft. “Witcraft”, as time has proven, did not attain permanency in common parlance nor, indeed, did many other such inventions. Sara Schliep’s blog of April 5th, 2019 is a good place to start if you’d like to read further: https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu.


[4] I do enjoy a hillside hike.


[5] Though I still hold my comments on Americanisms wholly justified, I’ll have you know...



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