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Style: Toward Clarity and Grace

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace

4.5 11
by Joseph M. Williams, Gregory G. Colomb (Joint Author)

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This acclaimed book is a master teacher's tested program for turning clumsy prose into clear, powerful, and effective writing. A logical, expert, easy-to-use plan for achieving excellence in expression, Style offers neither simplistic rules nor endless lists of dos and don'ts. Rather, Joseph Williams explains how to be concise, how to be focused, how to be


This acclaimed book is a master teacher's tested program for turning clumsy prose into clear, powerful, and effective writing. A logical, expert, easy-to-use plan for achieving excellence in expression, Style offers neither simplistic rules nor endless lists of dos and don'ts. Rather, Joseph Williams explains how to be concise, how to be focused, how to be organized. Filled with realistic examples of good, bad, and better writing, and step-by-step strategies for crafting a sentence or organizing a paragraph, Style does much more than teach mechanics: it helps anyone who must write clearly and persuasively transform even the roughest of drafts into a polished work of clarity, coherence, impact, and personality.

A textbook edition with exercises, Style is available from Longman.

Editorial Reviews

Revises the author's (English and linguistics, U. of Chicago) previously classroom-oriented text (Style, Scott Foresman, 1981, 1985, 1989) to address a general audience of professionals on ways to improve the style and structure of reports, analyses, articles, memoranda, proposals, monographs, books. One of the best guides in the field. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

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Toward Clarity and Grace

By Joseph M. Williams
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 1990 Joseph M. Williams
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-89915-2

Chapter One

Three Objectives

This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to "Omit Needless Words" or "Be clear." Telling me to "Be clear" is like telling me to "Hit the ball squarely." I know that. What I don't know is how to do it. To explain how to write clearly, I have to go beyond platitudes.

But I want to do more than just help you write clearly. I also want you to understand this matter-to understand why some prose seems clear, other prose not, and why two readers might disagree about it; why a passive verb can be a better choice than an active verb; why so many truisms about style are either incomplete or wrong. More important, I want that understanding to consist not of anecdotal bits and pieces, but of a coherent system of principles more useful than "Write short sentences."

Now there is a lively debate about whether action and understanding have anything to do with each other, whether those who want to write clearly ought to study principles of language at all. You may write well, yet can't distinguish a subject from a verb, or you may understand everything from retained objects to the subjunctive pluperfect progressive, and still write badly. From this apparent contradiction many have concluded that we don't have to understand principles of grammar to write well. Writing well, they believe, has to do with being sincere, or writing how they speak, or finding their authentic voices, or just being born with the knack. Others devoutly believe that they learned to write well only because they studied Latin and diagrammed sentences beyond number.

The truth will disconcert those of both persuasions. Nostalgic anecdotes aside, the best evidence suggests that students who spend a lot of time studying grammar improve their writing not one bit. In fact, they seem to get worse. On the other hand, there is good evidence that mature writers can change the way they write once they grasp a principled way of thinking about language, but one that is rather different from the kind of grammar some of us may dimly remember mastering-or being mastered by. The principles of style offered here will not describe sentences in a vocabulary that fifteenth-century students of Latin would still recognize, but in terms that help you understand how readers of modern English read; in terms that will help us understand why readers might describe the first sentence below as turgid and confusing, the second as clearer, more readable. But most important, in terms that also make it clear how to revise one into the other.

1a. The Committee proposal would provide for biogenetic industry certification of the safety to human health for new substances in requests for exemption from Federal rules.

1b. The Committee proposes that when the biogenetic industry requests the Agency to exempt new substances from Federal rules, the industry will certify that the substances are safe.

So if our first objective is doing, our second objective is understanding.

But however well a writer understands principles, it is not enough for those who also want to articulate that understanding to others, who want to explain why most readers prefer the style of (1b), and if necessary to persuade (or coerce) those others into writing in the same style. Whatever else a well-educated person can do, that person should be able to write clearly and to understand what it means to do that. But we judge as liberally educated the person who can articulate that understanding in ways that go beyond the ability to define subjects and verbs and explain their disagreements, certainly beyond self-evident truisms like "Be specific." This book provides a vocabulary that will let you explain these matters in ways that go beyond impressionism and banality.

A Very Short History of Bad Writing

Now, anyone familiar with the history of English prose might wonder whether anything we do here will substantially improve its future. Since the earliest times, many writers have graced us with much good writing. But others have afflicted us with much that is bad. Some of the reasons for the bad writing are rooted in history, others in personal experience.

In the last seven hundred years, English writers have responded to three influences on our language. Two are historical, one is cultural. These influences have helped make English a language flexible and precise enough to use with subjects ranging from the most concrete and mundane to the most abstract and elevated. But ironically, the very influences that have created this flexibility and precision have also allowed-indeed encouraged-many writers to produce prose that is quite bad. One of the two historical influences was the Norman Conquest in 1066, an event that led us to acquire a vocabulary qualitatively different from the Anglo-Saxon wordhord we've inherited from Bede, Alfred, and Aelfric. The second influence occurred in the sixteenth century, when Renaissance scholars struggling to translate Greek and Latin texts found themselves working at a lexical disadvantage.

After the Norman Conquest, those responsible for institutional, scholarly, and religious affairs wrote in Latin and later Norman French. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, increasing numbers of writers began using English again for matters of state, commercial, and social life. But since the native vocabulary for these matters had long since disappeared (or had never come into being), English writers were able to write about them in the only vocabulary available, in words borrowed from Latin, but particularly from French. By the sixteenth century, French and Latin had disappeared from most institutional affairs, but writers were still using their words to refer to institutional concepts. As a result, the foundations were laid for a two-tiered vocabulary: one consisting of words common to daily life, the other of words having more special application.

Conspiring with that influence on our vocabulary was a second one, the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century, as England was increasingly influenced by classical writers, scholars began translating into English large numbers of Greek and Latin texts. But as one early writer put it "there ys many wordes in Latyn that we have no propre Engysh accordynge thereto," and so translators simply "Englished" foreign words, thereby providing us with another set of borrowings, many from Greek but most from Latin, and almost all of them more formal than either our native English vocabulary or the Anglicized words from French.

As a consequence of these two influences, our vocabulary is the most varied of any modern European language. Of the thousand words we use most frequently, over 80 percent descend from Anglo-Saxon. But most of them are the single syllable labor-intensive words: the articles the, this, that, a, etc.; most of the prepositions and pronouns: in, on, of, by, at, with, you, we, it, I, etc.; the most common verbs and most of the common nouns: be, have, do, make, will, go, see, hand, head, mother, father, sun, man, woman, etc. (Many words borrowed from French have lost any sense of formality: people, (be)cause, use, just, really, very, sort, different, number, place.)

When we refer to specific matters of our intellectual and artistic life, however, we use almost three times as many French and Latin content words as native English. Compare how I might have been obliged to write the paragraph before last, had on Hastings Field in 1066 a Norman arrow not mortally wounded Harold, the Anglo-Saxon King:

Togetherworking with the outcome of the Norman Greatwin was the Newbirth. In the sixteenth yearhundred, as England was more shaped by the longread writers, the learned began turning into English many of the books of Athens and Rome, but as one early writer put it, "There ys many wordes in Latyn that we have no right Englysh withgoing thereto." So those who tongueturned works written in Latin and French into English only "Englished" outland words, thereby giving us yet more borrowed words, many from Greek but most from Latin, and almost all of them rather higher than the hereborn words or the words Englished from French.

Of course, if Harold had won the Battle of Hastings I wouldn't have written that at all, but he didn't, and as a result we now have a lexical resource that has endowed us with a stylistic flexibility largely unavailable to other modern languages. To express the precise shade of meaning and connotation, we can choose from among words borrowed from French-bravery, mettle, valor, endurance, courage; from Latin-tenacity, fortitude, and from words inherited from native English-fearlessness, guts.

But this flexibility has come with a price. Since the language of political, cultural, scientific, and economic affairs is based largely on Romance words, those of us who aspire to participate have had to learn a vocabulary separate from that which we learned through the first five or ten years of our lives. Just as we have to spend a good deal of time in school learning the idiosyncracies of our spelling system and of "good" grammar, so must we spend time learning words not rooted in our daily experience. Five-year-olds know the meaning of between, over, across, and before, but fifteen-year-olds have to learn the meaning of intra-, supra-, trans-, and ante-. To those of us already in an educated community, that vocabulary seems natural, not the least difficult. But if it were as natural to acquire as we think, publishers would not profit from selling books and tapes promising us Word Power in Thirty Days.

And of course once we learn these words, who among us can resist using them when we want to sound learned and authoritative? Writers began to surrender to that temptation well before the middle of the sixteenth century, but it was about then that many English writers became so enamored with an erudite vocabulary that they began deliberately to lard their prose with exotic Latinisms, a kind of writing that came to be known as the "inkhorn" style and was mocked as pretentious and incomprehensible by those critics for whom English had become a special passion. This impulse toward an elevated diction has proved quite durable; it accounts for the difference today between "The adolescents who had effectuated forcible entry into the domicile were apprehended" and "We caught the kids who broke into the house."

But while this Romance component of our vocabulary has contributed to one kind of stylistic inflation, it cannot alone account for a deeper problem we have with bad modern prose. We cannot point to the historical influence of borrowed words to explain why anyone would write (la) rather than (1b) because (1b) has more borrowed words:

1a. The Committee proposal would provide for biogenetic industry certification of the safety to human health for new substances in requests for exemption from Federal rules.

1b. The Committee proposes that when the biogenetic industry requests the Agency to exempt new substances from Federal rules, the industry will certify that the substances are safe.

In addition to the influence of the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance, there has been another, more subtle historical influence on our prose style, an influence that some linguists have speculated to be a kind of stylistic destiny for literate societies. As societies become intellectually mature, it has been claimed, their writers seem increasingly to replace specific verbs with abstract nouns. It allegedly happened in Sanskrit prose, in the prose of many Western European languages, and it seems to be happening in modern English. What centrally distinguishes sentence (1a) from (16) is not the historical source of their vocabulary, but the abstract nouns in (1a) in contrast to the shorter and more specific verbs and adjective of (1b):

1a. The Committee proposal would provide for biogenetic industry certification of the safety to human health for new substances requested for exemption from Federal rules.

1b. The Committee proposes that when the biogenetic industry requests the Agency to exempt new substances from Federal rules, the industry will certify that the substances are safe.

These nouns alone make a style more abstract, but they encourage more abstraction: once a writer expresses actions in nouns, she can then eliminate whatever (usually concrete) agents perform those actions along with those whom the actions affect:

The proposal would provide for certification of the safety of new substances in requests for exemption.

These abstract Romance nouns result in a prose that we variously call gummy, turgid, obtuse, prolix, complex, or unreadable. An early example:

If use and custom, having the help of so long time and continuance wherein to [re]fine our tongue, of so great learning and experience which furnish matter for the [re]fining, of so good wits and judgments which can tell how to [re]fine, have griped at nothing in all that time, with all that cunning, by all those wits which they will not let go but hold for most certain in the right of our writing, that then our tongue ha[s] no certainty to trust to, but write all at random. But the antecedent, in my opinion, is altogether unpossible, wherefore the consequent is a great deal more th[a]n probable, which is that our tongue ha[s] in her own possession and writing very good evidence to prove her own right writing; which, though no man as yet by any public writing of his seem[s] to have seen, yet the tongue itself is ready to show them to any whosoever which is able to read them and withal to judge what evidence is right in the right of writing. -Richard Mulcaster, The First Part of the Elementary, 1582

Other sixteenth-century writers were able to write prose not wholly free of abstraction, but not burdened by it either, a prose that we would judge today to be clear, direct, and still readable (I have changed only the spelling and punctuation):

Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that we never affect any strange inkhorn terms, but to speak as is commonly received, neither seeking to be over-fine, nor yet living overcareless, suiting our speech as most men do, and ordering our wits as the fewest have done. Some seek so far for outlandish English that they forget altogether their mother's language. And I dare swear this, if some of their mothers were alive, they [would] not [be] able to tell what they say. And yet these fine English clerks will say they speak in their mother tongue, if a man should charge them for counterfeiting the King's English. -Thomas Wilson, Art of Rhetoric, 1553

By the middle of the seventeenth century, this impulse toward "over-fine" prose had infected scholarly writing. Shortly after the Royal Society was established in 1660, Thomas Spratt, one of its historians, complained that scientific writing suffered from a "vicious abundance of phrase, [a] trick of metaphors, [a] volubility of tongue which makes so great a noise in the world." Better, he said, to

reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver'd so many things, almost in an equal number of words ... [to prefer] the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that, of Wits, or Scholars. -From The History of the Royal Society


Excerpted from Style by Joseph M. Williams Copyright © 1990 by Joseph M. Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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Style 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
C_J_SINGH More than 1 year ago
Reviewed by C J Singh (Berkeley, California)

Even a brief browsing of Joseph Williams's STYLE: LESSONS IN CLARITY AND GRACE, ninth edition, would persuade most readers that it makes the much touted Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" look, well, elementary. Simplistic. If the seductively slender "Elements"--easily read in a day, no exercises to do--could deliver its claim, by the end of the day there'd be millions of excellent writers. Besides, Williams shows how Strunk & White flout their own advice to "omit unnecessary words": he edits their 199-word paragraph to just 51 words (Williams, pp. 126-28). Williams shows grace in conceding that "in boiling down that original paragraph to a quarter of its original length, I've bleached out its garrulous charm."

In his preface to the 289-page book, Williams urges the reader to "go slowly" as it's "not an amiable essay to read in a sitting or two.... Do the exercises, edit someone else's writing, then some of your own written a few weeks ago, then something you wrote that day."

I assigned STYLE as the main textbook in Advanced Editorial Workshop, a ten-week course, I taught at the University of California. Each term, students rated the book as excellent. (The prerequisite to the workshop was a review course, with the main textbook "The Harbrace College Handbook." Although STYLE includes a 32-page appendix summarizing punctuation rules and grammar, most readers would be well-advised to review a standard college handbook, such as Harbrace or Bedford.

Let's not forget that this is a text- and work-book -- occasional pedagogic tone is to be expected. On the whole, the author's voice sounds earnest, refreshingly honest: Commenting on what's new in the ninth edition: "Finally, I've also done a lot of line editing. After twenty-five years of revising this book, you'd think by this time I'd have it right, but there always seem to be sentences that make me slap my forehead, wondering how I could have written them."

His expository style is clear. An example: Introducing the concepts of cohesion and coherence, Williams writes, "We judge sequences of sentences to be cohesive depending on how each sentence ends and the next begins. We judge a whole passage to be coherent depending on how all the sentences in a passage cumulatively begin. . . . It's easy to confuse the words cohesion and coherence because they sound alike. Think of cohesion as pairs of sentences fitting together the way two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle do. Think of coherence as seeing what all the sentences in a piece of writing add up to, the way all the pieces in a puzzle add up to the picture on the box."

-- C J Singh
Prydwen805 More than 1 year ago
This is the one book on writing that writers recommend to each other, and with good reason. Any one of the chapters will improve your readability the first time you use it. I've been teaching writing for 17 years, and i still refer to it.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I read the first edition back in 1981 as a first year judicial clerk/lawyer and it accelerated the improvement of the quality of my writing skill--to my great relief. It remains worthy of being the first book for professional writers to reach for to clear their heads and express their thoughts clearly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Seventh Edition of this title is out and is not listed on this site. Be careful you don't purchase the wrong edition.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this (short) book is a must for any writer, whether fiction, nonfiction or academic. the ten lessons help to make your sentences easier to read and understand.
Lizzard777 More than 1 year ago
Great book!!! Basic but helpful information.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very useful book I wish I'd read earlier.