Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers

Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers

by Jacques Barzun

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After a lifetime of writing and editing prose, Jacques Barzun has set down his view of the best ways to improve one's style. His discussions of diction, syntax, tone, meaning, composition, and revision guide the reader through the technique of making the written word clear and agreeable to read. Exercises, model passages both literary and casual, and hundreds of


After a lifetime of writing and editing prose, Jacques Barzun has set down his view of the best ways to improve one's style. His discussions of diction, syntax, tone, meaning, composition, and revision guide the reader through the technique of making the written word clear and agreeable to read. Exercises, model passages both literary and casual, and hundreds of amusing examples of usage gone wrong show how to choose the right path to self-expression in forceful and distinctive words.

Editorial Reviews

Doris Grumbach
Theory and instruction will only go so far. For the rest of the journey the student of the craft of writing needs the company of others who know the way. Barzun in his instruction and by the example of his own prose is an excellent choice of travelling companion.
Washington Post

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Fourth Edition
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

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Simple and Direct

A Rhetoric for Writers
By Jacques Barzun

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1994 Jacques Barzun
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226038688

Chapter One

or Which Words to Use

The Vocabulary As Supermarket

The choices I have just mentioned as occurring over and over again in the course of writing may be sorted for convenience into six groups. They form the main headings of this book.

The first is naturally the choice of words taken singly. Words are endowed with certain properties -- their meaning, their sound, their length, their past (rosy or ugly), their acquired suggestiveness. For example, in the first sentence of this book I wrote: "You want to be a writer"; and I added immediately: "or let us rather say: you want to write." The reason for the afterthought lies in the suggestion carried by the word writer. Its bare meaning is: someone who writes, but its implied and predominant meaning is: someone who writes professionally; so that "you want to be a writer" might elicit from a good many of my readers the rejoinder "I do not!"

Fortunately, as in this case, it takes no special effort to recognize a large number of these secondary meanings; every native speaker knows them and avoids misusage without a second thought. But we shall see when we come to speak of Connotation that people with their eyes open -- good readers -- respond to secondary meanings that unskilled writers do not suspect. The reader at first is puzzled by the intrusion of the irrelevant idea, then shakes his head at the writer's clumsiness.

Another property possessed by words is their ability to combine in some ways but not in others. They have "hooks" reaching out in certain directions only, which enable or forbid two or more words to go together. Right now, for example, I started to write: "which enable or prevent them to go together." But one cannot say prevent them to go; one must say prevent them from going. And this from in turn would rule out the use of the earlier enable. Hence forbid to replace prevent.

That bit of juggling was easy and quick -- it did not reach the paper -- not because I had run into the same obstacle before, but because this type of choice recurs very frequently: will my two verbs go with the same preposition? Making sure that they will becomes automatic -- provided one starts by being sure of each verb and preposition, which is to say, of idiomatic English. The need for complete familiarity with all the words and idioms one wants to use is evident and unarguable.

"Anything Goes" -- Is It True?

You may, to be sure, come across persons and books that do seem to argue against this conclusion. They maintain that in these enlightened days the idea of right and wrong in language has been discarded. The reasoning goes like this: Since language is bound to change and since some of the changes in the past have come from errors gradually accepted, new errors should not be criticized or restrained. This is a fallacy, for it says: "Some regrettable things have been assimilated after a time; therefore all must be accepted at once." Nobody would reason in this way about disease: it is not welcomed, but fought to the very last. The alteration of a language takes place by chance; no one is in charge of it; but writers are in charge of their work; they exercise care, both to simplify their task and out of courtesy to their readers; and this care acts as a restraint upon others' ignorance or carelessness.

It is perhaps the desire to be emancipated from "old-fashioned rules" (which never had much currency outside grammar books) that accounts for the exaggeration of "anything goes." Apart from dialects, which also have rules of their own, such combinations as we is, she do, they comes, advertise their wrongness immediately. The foreigner who spoke fluent English and who brought his hostess a box of chocolates on a hot summer day, saying, "I'm very much afraid they are molten," had to be told that molten is a perfectly good word, but wrong as he used it: he must say melted.

All of us automatically distinguish the meanings of struck and stricken, wooden, and wooded, below and beneath, aft and after, a flashlight and a flashing light, and thousands of other close and confusable terms. There is in principle no difference between these obvious possibilities of correct and incorrect use and the subtler ones about which writers take thought. The inattentive may suppose that there is no reason for the recommended choice or the established distinction, but the practiced writer knows that neglect of the fine points catches up with him and ties his hands later on. It is because of neglect that such words as disinterested, deprecate, cohort, controversial, sensitive, and others can no longer be used as freely as before. Misuse or overuse has robbed them of strict meaning in various contexts; the natural resources of the language have been depleted by a careless pollution.

Since usage, or the mainstream of accepted meanings and forms, is not ascertainable with complete precision -- even the biggest dictionary cannot list all the uses and all the variations of sense -- every writer must make up his mind about borderline cases between Accepted and Unacceptable. Being highly conscious of words, he decides in the light of his experience, which includes wide reading, what he can tolerate and what he must do without. For example, I do without contact as a verb because of its connotation of surfaces touching, and though I read disinterested in the sense of uninterested if I have to, I stick to its former meaning in my own prose, because no other word supplies it. But I have given up on restive, which used to mean stubborn, refusing to budge, and is now a (needless) synonym for restless, uneasy, impatient.

In the choice of single words one is often advised to consider the level of discourse to which one or another belongs. Some words, it is said, are formal, others informal...Continues...


Excerpted from Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun Copyright © 1994 by Jacques Barzun.
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Meet the Author

Born in France in 1907, Jacques Barzun came to the United States in 1920. After graduating from Columbia College, he joined the faculty of the university, becoming Seth Low Professor of History and, for a decade, Dean of Faculties and Provost. The author of some thirty books, including the New York Times bestseller From Dawn to Decadence, he received the Gold Medal for Criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he was twice president. He lived in San Antonio, Texas, before passing away at age 104.

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