On-line Guide with Exercises and Additional Museum Exhibits For Clear and Simple as the Truth: 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.

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

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.

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

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

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.