Archives For Brevity

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There is something to be said for brevity. But I won’t belabor that here.

In an essay entitled “Before We Can Communicate,” C.S. Lewis explores the frequently overlooked necessity of using commonly agreed upon definitions. He cites examples where apparent disagreement could be traced to differing assumptions about how others would interpret a given word.

We’ve all experienced that sort of confusion and if emotions become involved in the dispute, it can result in more than simple frustration.

As a military chaplain, working in an extremely diverse and pluralistic environment, I devoted much attention to communicating clearly. As an example, when dealing with “theological matters,” I always inquired into the religious background of the person with whom I was speaking.

I did not do so with the intention of altering an iota of the conversation that followed. I learned early on that the religious training each person received carried with it a sort of doctrinal dictionary, where the words carried particular meaning. One problematic example is “baptism,” which means something quite different for different parts of Christ’s Body. When focusing on communication, the question is not which understanding is most biblical. It is, what does the word mean in its present usage in this conversation.

In Lewis’ essay on communication, he describes something that should be a core skill of every pastor.

What we want to see in every ordination exam is a compulsory paper on (simply) translation; a passage from some theological work to be turned into plain vernacular English. Just turned; not adorned, nor diluted, nor made “matey.”

The exercise is very like doing Latin prose. Instead of saying, “How would Cicero have said that?” you have to ask yourself, “How would my scout or bedmaker have said that?”

Lewis cites multiple benefits from this effort. Foremost among them is the usefulness of a commonly understood vocabulary, which he refers to as “learned language.”

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity.

It can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original. And this we must just put up with.

People who know (and love) me, consider me wordy. I confess to the crime. But in my defense, I declare that with misunderstandings resulting from even the simplest conversations, I strive to dispel as thoroughly as possible, all clouds of potential confusion.

A Note on the Future of Mere Inkling

As is natural in dynamic or living things, such as active blogs, change naturally occurs over time. Such drifting, or even radical alteration, is normal. While altering course results from a conscious decision, drift typically takes place subtly, and slowly.

Over the past year or two, the columns posted here at Mere Inkling have grown in length. While this has allowed for deeper exposition of complex subjects, and a more nuanced treatment of C.S. Lewis’ contributions to the ideas discussed, the increased length has had other unhappy consequences.

The first is that it has, I believe, modestly decreased the readership of Mere Inkling. The internet, by its very nature, favors shorter treatments, and that is a simple truism. Combined with our rapidly decreasing attention spans, an online writer must consciously weigh the tradeoffs.

The second reason is that it takes significantly longer to write a more thorough “essay.” Increasing demands on my time have made the “long form” posting more of a hardship.

So, in light of these considerations, it is my desire to return Mere Inkling to its roots. I will endeavor to keep the posts shorter—along the lines of today’s column above this “note.”

I hope this minor reorientation will be welcomed by you, dear member of the Mere Inkling family.

Is More Better?

May 15, 2014 — 15 Comments

everettThat’s a trick question. More of some things certainly is better . . . more peace, more compassion. But more—even of good things—can sometimes become too much.

Case in point: words.

I continue to frustrate one of my critique group friends because I write “like a historian rather than a journalist.” The distinction being:

Journalist – Just the facts, please.
Historian – Lover of descriptions, details, esoterica, and trivia.

Guilty as charged.

C.S. Lewis commends the literary virtue of brevity. The following passage is found in his aptly named essay, “Before We Can Communicate.”

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity. It can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred.

Last year marked the 150th Anniversary of one of the world’s most famous speeches. Not only Americans are familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It has become a monument to succinctness and power.

Rereading it recently I began to wonder about the other speech delivered at the event . . . the two hour oration delivered by Edward Everett, one of the era’s most highly regarded public speakers.*

The journalists and audience at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery were extremely impressed by Everett’s presentation, and surprised by the brevity of Lincoln’s remarks.

Following the event, both men lauded each other’s message. Lincoln responded to Everett’s note which praised him for the “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness” of his remarks. Everett said, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Your kind note of to-day is received. In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure. Of course I knew Mr. Everett would not fail; and yet, while the whole discourse was eminently satisfactory, and will be of great value, there were passages in it which transcended my expectation. The point made against the theory of the general government being only an agency, whose principals are the States, was new to me, and, as I think, is one of the best arguments for the national supremacy. The tribute to our noble women for their angel-ministering to the suffering soldiers, surpasses, in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone before.

I tracked down an online copy of Everett’s Gettysburg speech. I’ve skimmed it, and it is rather interesting. With the course of the war still undetermined at the time it was presented, it is easy to see how its stirring words could inspire an already war-weary nation. As he elaborates on the efforts of the Confederates to establish a new nation, he begs for patience. “Pardon me, my friends, for dwelling on these wretched sophistries.” Sophistries indeed.

The speech offers a partisan analysis of the entire course of the war up to that time. International readers of Mere Inkling may find the references to other countries interesting. He describes “civil wars” in England, Germany, Italy and France. Since he spoke during an era when Italy was still disunited, allow me to quote that portion of the speech.

In Italy, on the breaking up of the Roman Empire, society might be said to be resolved into its original elements–into hostile atoms, whose only movement was that of mutual repulsion. Ruthless barbarians had destroyed the old organizations, and covered the land with a merciless feudalism. As the new civilization grew up, under the wing of the Church, the noble families and the walled towns fell madly into conflict with each other; the secular feud of Pope and Emperor scourged the land; province against province, city against city, street against street, waged remorseless war with each other from father to son, till Dante was able to fill his imaginary hell with the real demons of Italian history.

So ferocious had the factions become, that the great poet-exile himself, the glory of his native city and of his native language, was, by a decree of the municipality, condemned to be burned alive if found in the city of Florence. But these deadly feuds and hatreds yielded to political influences, as the hostile cities were grouped into States under stable governments; the lingering traditions of the ancient animosities gradually died away, and now Tuscan and Lombard, Sardinian and Neapolitan, as if to shame the degenerate sons of America, are joining in one cry for a united Italy.

For those who are interested, this paragraph from Everett’s speech is only fifty-five words shorter than the entire Gettysburg Address.

Of course, just as being loquacious does not guarantee irrelevance, neither does brevity ensure quality.

The key is using the right number of words. That will vary from person to person.

In the twenty-first century, though, a good rule of thumb is to follow the example of Lincoln rather than his speechifying colleague.

_____
* Everett had a prolific political career. It included: U.S. House of Representatives, Governor of Massachusetts, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Senator. Oh, and he was also President of Harvard University, a job that probably included at least as much politics as his previous endeavors.

platypusI have a twitter account I’ve never used. I had attended a ministry conference where the featured speaker encouraged all of the pastors to harness the power of this cutting edge technology.

I dutifully returned home, established an account, and realized there were very few things I wanted to say in 140 characters or less. One hundred and forty words . . . now you’re talking. But a mere seven score letters . . . I don’t think so.

I know there are many positive things about brevity. In our hectic world, it’s become an absolute necessity. Still, some things—to be expressed more clearly and (dare I say it, “entertainingly”)—demand more than two and a half sentences.

I was recently reading an article entitled “Tweets Before Twitter,” and it gave me cause to reconsider the prospect of using twitter to share worthwhile ideas. It described “ingenious brevity inspired 150 years ago by telegrams. . . . when people had to pay as much as $1 per Morse-coded word to dispatch a cable overseas, only a robber baron could afford to be loquacious.”

Now, that’s a sobering thought, especially since one of the dollars of that era would likely translate into about $214.17 today (by rough estimate). With that incentive, many telegraphs employed cryptic shorthand similar to the increasingly familiar terminology of the tweetworld.

However, one example they cited was different. It did not rely on learning a new language of contemporary abbreviations. Instead, it appealed to a much older language, Latin. Here’s the example they reported.

Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.

Translation: In the 19th century one of the greatest scientific debates was whether the platypus laid eggs, a fact that zoologist William Hay Caldwell was finally able to confirm in 1884. Here he uses Latin to cable his discovery from Australia to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Since Latin had words for high-level scientific concepts, Caldwell could condense an entire paper into one brief sentence, letting colleagues know that platypus embryos develop like birds instead of mammals.

If I could remember the Latin I studied back in high school . . . And, if the people I was tweeting could read what I was saying . . . I just might reconsider my decision not to tweet. But I regard that event highly unlikely.

For now I’ll remain more than content to post a couple of times a week to Mere Inkling, in the hopes that a few of my words prove helpful or entertaining.

Finally, although the great unknown of platypus parenting was discovered in 1884, I’ve been pondering another mystery of the Ornithorhynchus anatinus. Why was it, that C.S. Lewis failed to include these wondrous creatures in Narnia? Perhaps it was because their semi-aquatic nature meant they would be of little value in the battles that marked the events recorded in the Chronicles? I have little doubt that despite the absence of their mention, Narnia’s waters teemed with their frolicking duck bills, otter feet and beaver tails.

A Literary Phobia

May 2, 2013 — 8 Comments

hipposWhat in the world does this protracted word mean?

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

From the suffix, we can assume that it refers to some sort of “fear.” But fear of what? Hippopotami?

No, this lengthy word doesn’t refer to the African “river horses” from which it derives its beginning. This peculiar construction describes nothing other than a fear of long words!

I know people who find long words daunting . . . but none who have admitted to be in fear of them. I myself am a bit intimidated by unfamiliar words that I have to pronounce in front of others. (I recently visited a writing group that caught me off guard with their practice of reading one another’s work out loud. Not only was I the first person expected to begin reading the first article critiqued that morning—it included a number of words from French cuisine with which I was unfamiliar.)

I don’t mind encountering unfamiliar words in a text (that I’m reading privately), especially when the meaning is evident from the context. In fact, I often enjoy the introduction, since it expands my own vocabulary.

The fact his, however, that many very gifted writers warn their readers to avoid lengthy or complicated words.

Just last week I contrasted George Orwell’s writing advice with that of C.S. Lewis. Orwell said,

“Never use a long word when a short one will do.”

C.S. Lewis, included in his short list of advice the encouragement to,

“Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one.”

While these suggestions may “sound” identical, they are not. Orwell is concerned here with simplicity (rather than brevity, per se). Lewis, though, is advocating clarity.

Lewis does not object at all to using a multisyllabic word. He merely argues that the choice needs to be one that helps communicate rather than confuse. Allow me to share a simple example. Following Lewis’ counsel, one of these sentences would be problematic, while the other would be okay.

Life is all about love.

Experiencing contentment and joy relates directly to one’s ability to offer, and receive, affection from other human beings.

Obviously one sentence is far more complex than the other. However, it’s meaning is quite clear. The simpler, five word sentence is so vague as to allow for any number of interpretations. For example, in addition to the alternative above, it might mean (to its writer):

Without a foundation of self-love, we cannot experience life to its fullest.

     or . . .

At the Final Judgment, it is only our acts of love that will pass intact through the “purifying fire.”

     or . . .

The more people with whom you can “sow your wild oats,” the happier you will be.

The Government Intervenes

Amazing as it may seem, the United States government actually has a website devoted to promoting simple language: plainlanguage.com. It exists to help implement the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

While the effectiveness of the statute is debatable, it’s intention is praiseworthy.

On one page it directs agencies to avoid complex words. Instead of “endeavoring to assist,” writers are told to use “told to help.” While that is absolutely commendable in governmental documents, I prefer a bit more flavor when I’m reading for pleasure.

I strongly encourage anyone suffering from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia to seek professional help. This is especially true for those who desire to express themselves clearly. We need never fear a lengthy word—as long as we are using the right word!

Literary Words

April 9, 2012 — 13 Comments

I must confess that I like words. In fact, it’s not excessive to say that I delight in brilliantly witty “turns of phrase” and elegantly painted landscapes that allow me to clearly see what the author is painting with his or her words.

I’ve grown convinced that loving words is a handicap to becoming an excellent writer. Yes, scribblers like me can become adequate or even appreciated writers . . . but to stand in the highest ranks a writer must be willing to ruthlessly slash and slay excess words that impede their perfect vision.

Self-editing is a discipline. It’s something that can be learned and refined through practice. That it forever remains a bit painful for some of us is clear evidence we are overly attached to the words we have put to paper.

C.S. Lewis addressed this general subject in a 1932 letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves. While he was not a slave to the number of words required, he aimed for simplicity and clarity. Lewis wrote:

I think I see, from your criticisms, that you like a much more correct, classical, and elaborate manner than I. I aim chiefly at being idiomatic and racy, basing myself on Malory, Bunyan, and Morris, tho’ without archaisms: and would usually prefer to use ten words, provided they are honest native words and idiomatically ordered, than one “literary word.” To put the thing in a nutshell you want “The man of whom I told you,” and I want “The man I told you of.”

I smiled as I typed Lewis’ remark about “ten words.” He used that to illustrate his willingness to use excessive verbiage to communicate clearly. Brevity was, however, an admirable goal. And brevity is a virtue I’ve seldom been accused of possessing.

In the military, comrades and associates are frequently presenting plaques and remembrances to those who are “rotating” to new assignments. Having served in a dozen different “permanent” assignments, I have boxes full of such memorabilia.

Two of the few I display are genuinely precious. The first is an icon of Saint Athanasius, presented to me by the best “boss” I ever had, an Orthodox priest by the name of John Stefero. The reasons for the personal gift were theological and I accepted it with genuine appreciation and humility.

The second prized gift is a gracefully curved etched glass keepsake featuring the seal of the United States Air Force Chaplain School where I served for three wonderful years. The commandant was speechless as he presented the plaque to me, reading for the first time the inscription that my closest companions had composed for me.

He says in a book what others say in a sentence.

The commandant (later our Chief of Chaplains) was stunned. I was delighted. I led the gathering’s laughter and bellowed, “Yes, and it’s a book well worth reading!”

Jack Lewis may have chided me a bit for the underlying reason for the accolade, but I am confident he would have delighted in the affectionate friendship and esprit de corps with which it was presented.

So much for my shortcomings. For all other writers (including, perhaps, you?) . . . I would recommend following the master’s example, rather than my own.