Skeletal Prose

A week late, but, you get the idea

It’s so well-intentioned of people to resolve to do things differently
Me, I don’t make resolutions for New Year. Mostly. Except, perhaps, one. Polonius’ remark to Hamlet’s parents, is brief, and to the point. ‘…brevity is the soul of wit…your noble son is mad….’ Little room for doubt or misunderstanding, then.
William Strunk. Once heard, a name not easily forgotten. He was a professor of English at Cornell, and had a student, one E B White who enlarged his 1918 magnum opus ‘The Elements of Style’ into almost a set text for authors. If White’s name sounds familiar, he wrote ‘Stuart Little ‘ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’. I haven’t read Dr Strunk. But, if I had, I expect he would have taught me the necessity of brevity. He wrote, somewhat caustically: ‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.’ Riveting stuff. Keeps you awake till the wee small hours.

Skeletal prose, so beloved of the well-paid writer, not counting James Joyce. Here’s a fifty-dollar word, a free gift*, if you like. Pleonasms* are a redundant excess of words, the authors’ revenge on people who pay by the character who’d like them to write less of them. Literature overflows with people who didn’t follow this doubtlessly sound advice. Shakespeare again, this time from the third act of “Julius Caesar”: ‘This was the most unkindest cut of all.’ Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”: ‘Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs.’ And finally, Samuel Beckett: ‘Let me tell you this, when social workers offer you, free, gratis and for nothing, something to hinder you from swooning, which with them is an obsession, it is useless to recoil…’ (Molloy).
The law, well known for ponderous prose, has its own little stylistic vices, using little pleonasms like “null and void”, “terms and conditions”, “each and every” – two-for-one words which say the same thing.

So, therefore, and so forth and so on. This year will see a paring, a slenderizing of the prosaic moi. No more flowers, no more multiply-verbed sentences in close proximity, (ha!) no burbling descent into doggerel. Instead, the crispy meme, the mot juste. Or whatever.

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