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On deprecating Latinate sentences (and sententiousness)

Posted by Christopher Shea  January 22, 2010 02:21 PM

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I took William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" to heart when I was in college, though my feelings about the book are more complicated today. (Sadly, last I checked, it no longer includes my favorite two pages, the ones in which Zinsser reproduced two draft pages of his typewritten text, complete with crossed-out "clutter." And that was the fourth or fifth draft of those pages, Zinsser said!)

Trevor Butterworth, however, writing in Forbes, argues that the legendary writing tutor has, of late, gotten a bit carried away in his pontifications about clarity. Consider this passage from an article in the current American Scholar (it was originally a speech by Zinsser to foreign students in Columbia University's journalism school):

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.

Butterworth is a champion of Latin prose, so he finds this passage offensive. Like Evelyn Waugh and countless others, he thinks that a knowledge of the Latin masters is a great aid in writing eloquent English. It's an old debate: Daniel Defoe, I recall, held the contrary position: that English writing only took off when the shackles of Latin-fetishism were removed.

Whichever side you fall on, what can't be denied is that Zinsser's pronouncement is self-immolating, not unlike George Orwell's famous indictment of the passive voice.

"Anglo Saxon" is itself derived from Latin, but so are the words "derived," "Latin," "history," "sources," "florid," "ancient," "Rome," "plain," "Europe," "enemy," "strangle," and "suffocate"--sometimes with Old French as an intermediary. In fact, the more Zinsser fulminates against the "vague concepts" and "abstract ideas" of Latin, the more Latin and other foreign-borne words he uses.

After that nice point, Butterworth himself gets a bit carried away in the opposite direction from Zinsser, at least for my taste.

(All of which reminds me to remind you: Jan Freeman's language blog has moved from boston.com to throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com)

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