Book cover On-line Guide
with Exercises and
Additional Museum Exhibits For

Clear and Simple as the Truth:
Writing Classic Prose

This web page is copyright © Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, 1996 - 2003.

Clear and Not Commonplace

From Aristotle. The Rhetoric, Book 3, [1404b].

Excellence of style consists in being clear and not commonplace. . . . Authors should compose without being noticed and should seem to speak not artificially but naturally. The latter is persuasive, the former is not; for if artifice is obvious, people become resentful, as if at someone plotting against them, just as they do against those who adulterate wines.

A style consists of a conceptual stand on some basic intellectual questions that are the elements of style. Learning to write in a style is learning to inhabit its conceptual stand.

Classic style is a general style, suitable for presenting anything, accessible to anyone who wishes to learn it. Although there are many distinguished classic writers who work in English, and although workaday classic style is widely used in journalism, advertising, and instruction in English, classic style is not a routine style in the English-speaking world and is almost never taught in its schools. This unfamiliarity with writing in classic style actually makes it easier for the student to recognize that classic style is a style, to detect the classic stand, and to practice classic style without sliding into intuitive and unconscious but poorly developed or incoherent former versions of it. Since classic style has thrived in English and appears in every field and situation, regardless of content, students notice instantly that the activity they are trying to learn is widely practiced. They recognize its products in literature, manuals, guide books, news reports, book reviews, personal letters, statements of purpose, nearly anywhere they care to look, provided they know how to look.

... Classic style is also an incomparably effective style for American students to learn, because classic style is associated in America with intelligence and distinction, even though classic writing does not draw attention to itself or appear to be trying to promote the writer. Having learned to inhabit the classic stand and to write or speak from it gives the student an invaluable instrument for dealing with any moment that calls for self-presentation or persuasion, because classic style in America is taken as a mark of the superiority of the writer. The ethos carried by classic style gives an implicit but powerful picture of the writer which often accomplishes all by itself the task the student faces. The writer confronted with the law school application, the blank "Statement of Purpose," the application to graduate school, the job interview, the brief interval in which she may be allowed to pitch whatever it is she has to pitch, has a great advantage over competitors if she can assume the classic stand and speak from it.

... Classic style is elastic over personalities, allowing the student to develop an individual style that is none the less classic for being individual.

... Classic style offers the student exceptional pleasure since it is flattering to the writer, flattering to the reader, and intellectually collusive. It takes the stand that there is no external pressure on the writer and certainly nothing that the writer is trying to beat out of the reader - a grade, a letter of recommendation, a contract. The writer is unquestionably competent, absolutely interesting, entirely disinterested, at leisure, and articulate. The writer's security as a thinker and a writer is not at issue. As students learn to write in classic style, their adoption of the classic stand becomes, by degrees and in pulses, more and more thorough. The assumed scene of classic style displaces ever more effectively the real scene. Many of them forget, for long stretches, that they are enrolled in a class, writing to a teacher, or vulnerable to grades. The student is sprung, if only temporarily, from the undergraduate nightmare of being treated like an adolescent, pushed into intellectual fraud, and required to pretend that the fraud is educational. Adopting the classic stand can become addictive for undergraduate students because it reliably and enjoyably brings them good grades, gives them a social distinction, and springs them from the undergraduate intellectual ghetto.

Tanzanian Peaberry coffee beans        Student piece copyright © Alexandra Griffin, 2000. Used with permission.

Tanzanian Peaberry coffee beans, when properly roasted, have a color between caramel and deep tan. Each bean is a nearly perfectly spherical ball the size of a pea, with a natural seam running across one side as if it were a normal coffee bean made of clay and rolled into a ball. Actually, this shape is produced by one special species of coffee tree which grows berries that bear only one bean apiece, while average coffee berries must support two beans each, which gives them the classic hemispherical shape. Since each berry supports only one Peaberry bean, the beans have an intense and inimitable flavor. This raw flavor makes for less roasting, and therefore a relatively light brown color.

Prime Numbers

From G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology. [1940] With a foreword by C. P. Snow. Cambridge: University Press, 1967, pages 88-92.

Headnote: ... His position is that if he can just show us an example of the best mathematics, it will of course be obvious to us that it is serious in contrast to chess, which, however intricate it may be, is always trivial. He takes the stand that any reader can see the truth of his claim. He is a guide who selects the appropriate proof and walks us through it. The claim is open to many objections and qualifications, but Hardy relies upon a basic premise of classic style: truth does not require argument, just an unobstructed view. The reader may lack that unobstructed view by lacking mathematical training, but this is merely an accidental lack which Hardy will remove by lending us his training.

A chess problem is genuine mathematics, but it is in some way "trivial" mathematics. However ingenious and intricate, however original and surprising the moves, there is something essential lacking. Chess problems are unimportant. The best mathematics is serious as well as beautiful--"important" if you like, but the word is very ambiguous, and "serious" expresses what I mean much better.

I am not thinking of the "practical" consequences of mathematics. I have to return to that point later: at present I will say only that if a chess problem is, in the crude sense, "useless," then that is equally true of most of the best mathematics; that very little of mathematics is useful practically, and that that little is comparatively dull. The "seriousness" of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is "significant" if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas. Thus a serious mathematical theorem, a theorem which connects significant ideas, is likely to lead to important advances in mathematics itself and even in other sciences. No chess problem has ever affected the general development of scientific thought; Pythagoras, Newton, Einstein have in their times changed its whole direction.

The seriousness of a theorem, of course, does not lie in its consequences, which are merely the evidence for its seriousness. Shakespeare had an enormous influence on the development of the English language, Otway next to none, but that is not why Shakespeare was the better poet. He was the better poet because he wrote much better poetry. The inferiority of the chess problem, like that of Otway's poetry, lies not in its consequences but in its content.

... It will be clear by now that, if we are to have any chance of making progress, I must produce examples of "real" mathematical theorems, theorems which every mathematician will admit to be first-rate. 

... I can hardly do better than go back to the Greeks. I will state and prove two of the famous theorems of Greek mathematics. They are "simple" theorems, simple both in idea and in execution, but there is no doubt at all about their being theorems of the highest class. Each is as fresh and significant as when it was discovered--two thousand years have not written a wrinkle on either of them. Finally, both the statements and the proofs can be mastered in an hour by any intelligent reader, however slender his mathematical equipment.

I. The first is Euclid's proof of the existence of an infinity of prime numbers.

The prime numbers or primes are the numbers   (A) 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, ...   which cannot be resolved into smaller factors. Thus 37 and 317 are prime. The primes are the material out of which all numbers are built up by multiplication: thus 666 = 2 . 3 . 3 . 37. Every number which is not prime itself is divisible by at least one prime (usually, of course, by several). We have to prove that there are infinitely many primes, i.e. that the series (A) never comes to an end.

Let us suppose that it does, and that   2, 3, 5, . . . , P   is the complete series (so that P is the largest prime); and let us, on this hypothesis, consider the number   Q = (2 . 3 . 5 . . . . .P) + 1

It is plain that Q is not divisible by any of 2, 3, 5, ..., P; for it leaves the remainder 1 when divided by any one of these numbers. But, if not itself prime, it is divisible by some prime, and therefore there is a prime (which may be Q itself) greater than any of them. This contradicts our hypothesis, that there is no prime greater than P; and therefore this hypothesis is false.

The proof is by reductio ad absurdum, and reductio ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician's finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.

The Official Style

From Richard Lanham. "The Official Style" in Revising Prose.

The Official Style . . . is a genuine style, and one that reflects the genuine bureaucratization of American life. . . . [It looks] at life only through the system's eyes. It is a scribal style, ritualized, formulaic, . . . . Sometimes you can see The Official Style seizing its prey like a boa constrictor and gradually squeezing the life out of it. Here's a student feeling its grip.

Twelve-year-old boys like to fight. Consequently, on several occasions I explained to them the negative aspects of fighting. Other responsibilities included keeping them dry (when near the creek or at times of rain), seeing that they bathed, attending to any minor wounds they acquired, and controlling their mischievous behavior. Another responsibility was remaining patient with the children.
We all want to fit in, to talk the language of the country. This desire is what keeps society glued together. So the impulses that attract us to The Official Style are not always perverse or depraved. And so when we analyze The Official Style, we're really talking about how we live now, about our society as well as our prose, about how to survive in The System. What does the prose tell us about the society?

Well, it is a euphemistic society, for a start. It thinks of every town dump as a "Sanitary Landfill Site," every mentally retarded child as "exceptional," every dog catcher as an "animal welfare officer." Society may have its pains and problems, but language can sugarcoat them.

The second rule in this society is "Keep your head down. Don't assert anything you'll have to take the blame for. Don't, if you can help it, assert anything at all." . . .

Long ago, La Rochefoucauld talked about a grave manner as "a mysterious carriage of the body to cover defects of the mind." The Official Style has elevated this into an article of faith. . . .

The Official Style always wants to make things seem better than they are, more mysterious and yet somehow more controlled, more inevitable. It strives, at all times, both to disarm and impress us. It suggests that it sees the world differently - sees, even, a different world. It suggests that those who see in this way form a happy band of brothers. Now such a use of language does not, to students of literature, sound unfamiliar. It is called poetic diction. And this is what The Official Style amounts to - poetry. The first rule about poetry is that you cannot translate it into prose without destroying its real meaning. And here we come to the central problem with The Official Style. There is no point in reproaching it for not being clear. It does not want to be clear. It wants to be poetic. It seems to be distant and impersonal, but it really is just the opposite. At its best, it wants to tell you how it feels to be an official, to project the sense of numinous self-importance officialdom confers. It wants to make a prosaic world mysterious.

The School Style

From Richard Lanham. "The School Style" in Revising Prose.

Students have developed their own version of The Official Style. We might call it The School Style. . . . School is a bureaucracy and a bureaucracy requires some version of The Official Style. . . . [The School Style] is compounded, in equal parts, of deference to a teacher . . ., of despair at filling up the required number of pages before tomorrow morning, and of the mindlessness born of knowing that what you write may not be read with real attention. Above all, The School Style avoids unqualified assertion. It always leaves the back door open. If the teacher doesn't agree, you can sneak out through an "it seems" for "is," "may indeed have something in common with" for "results from," "it could possibly be argued that" for "I think," and so on. Rule 2 requires that you fill up the page as quickly as possible. Never "feel isolated"; always "suffer from an acute feeling of isolation." Never "feel alienated"; always "feel like an outsider, alienated from the society of 'normal' men." This desire to fill up the page works whenever we write from demand and not desire, of course, but it works insidiously, even when you are not deliberately trying to fill the page with bullshit.