12 Classic Essays on English Prose Style

Key Passages From the Writings of Master Stylists

Murder Your Darlings
"Murder your darlings" was the stylistic advice of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. (Ryuhei Shindo/Getty Images)

Despite the changes in English prose over the past few centuries, we may still benefit from the stylistic observations of the old masters. Here, chronologically arranged, are 12 key passages from our collection of Classic Essays on English Prose Style. (To read the complete essays, click on the highlighted titles.)

  • Samuel Johnson on the Bugbear Style
    There is a mode of style for which I know not that the masters of oratory have yet found a name; a style by which the most evident truths are so obscured, that they can no longer be perceived, and the most familiar propositions so disguised that they cannot be known. . . . This style may be called the terrifick, for its chief intention is, to terrify and amaze; it may be termed the repulsive, for its natural effect is to drive away the reader; or it may be distinguished, in plain English, by the denomination of the bugbear style, for it has more terror than danger.
    (Samuel Johnson, "On the Bugbear Style," 1758)
  • Oliver Goldsmith on Simple Eloquence
    Eloquence is not in the words but in the subject, and in great concerns the more simply anything is expressed, it is generally the more sublime. True eloquence does not consist, as the rhetoricians assure us, in saying great things in a sublime style, but in a simple style, for there is, properly speaking, no such thing as a sublime style; the sublimity lies only in the things; and when they are not so, the language may be turgid, affected, metaphorical--but not affecting.
    (Oliver Goldsmith, "Of Eloquence," 1759)
     
  • Benjamin Franklin on Imitating the Style of the Spectator
    About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With that view, I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by for a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.
    (Benjamin Franklin, "Imitating the Style of the Spectator," 1789)
     
  • William Hazlitt on Familiar Style
    It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random. On the contrary, there is nothing that requires more precision, and, if I may so say, purity of expression, than the style I am speaking of. It utterly rejects not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected, slipshod allusions. It is not to take the first word that offers, but the best word in common use.
    (William Hazlitt, "On Familiar Style," 1822)
     
  • Thomas Macaulay on the Bombastic Style
    [Michael Sadler's style is] everything which it ought not to be. Instead of saying what he has to say with the perspicuity, the precision, and the simplicity in which consists the eloquence proper to scientific writing, he indulges without measure in vague, bombastic declamation, made up of those fine things which boys of fifteen admire, and which everybody, who is not destined to be a boy all his life, weeds vigorously out of his compositions after five-and-twenty. That portion of his two thick volumes which is not made up of statistical tables, consists principally of ejaculations, apostrophes, metaphors, similes--all the worst of their respective kinds.
    (Thomas Babington Macaulay, "On Sadler's Bombastic Declamations," 1831)
     
  • Henry Thoreau on a Vigorous Prose Style
    The scholar might frequently emulate the propriety and emphasis of the farmer's call to his team, and confess that if that were written it would surpass his labored sentences. Whose are the truly labored sentences? From the weak and flimsy periods of the politician and literary man, we are glad to turn even to the description of work, the simple record of the month's labor in the farmer's almanac, to restore our tone and spirits. A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plow instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end.
    (Henry David Thoreau, "A Vigorous Prose Style," 1849)
     
  • Cardinal John Newman on the Inseparability of Style and Substance
    Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one; style is a thinking out into language. This is what I have been laying down, and this is literature: not things, not the verbal symbols of things; not on the other hand mere words; but thoughts expressed in language. . . . A great author, Gentlemen, is not one who merely has a copia verborum, whether in prose or verse, and can, as it were, turn on at his will any number of splendid phrases and swelling sentences; but he is one who has something to say and knows how to say it.
    (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, 1852)
     

  • Mark Twain on Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences
    Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. . . . There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now.
    (Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences," 1895)
     
  • Agnes Repplier on the Right Words
    Musicians know the value of chords; painters know the value of colors; writers are often so blind to the value of words that they are content with a bare expression of their thoughts . . .. For every sentence that may be penned or spoken the right words exist. They lie concealed in the inexhaustible wealth of a vocabulary enriched by centuries of noble thought and delicate manipulation. He who does not find them and fit them into place, who accepts the first term which presents itself rather than search for the expression which accurately and beautifully embodies his meaning, aspires to mediocrity, and is content with failure.
    (Agnes Repplier, "Words," 1896)
     
  • Arthur Quiller-Couch on Extraneous Ornament
    [L]et me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. . . . [I]f you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."
    (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, "On Style," 1916)
     
  • H.L. Mencken on Woodrow Wilson's Style
    Woodrow knew how to conjure up such words. He knew how to make them glow, and weep. He wasted no time upon the heads of his dupes, but aimed directly at their ears, diaphragms and hearts. . . . When Wilson got upon his legs in those days he seems to have gone into a sort of trance, with all the peculiar illusions and delusions that belong to a frenzied pedagogue. He heard words giving three cheers; he saw them race across a blackboard like Socialists pursued by the Polizei; he felt them rush up and kiss him.
    (H.L. Mencken, "The Style of Woodrow," 1921)
     
  • F.L. Lucas on Stylistic Honesty
    As the police put it, anything you say may be used as evidence against you. If handwriting reveals character, writing reveals it still more. . . . Most style is not honest enough. Easy to say, but hard to practice. A writer may take to long words, as young men to beards—to impress. But long words, like long beards, are often the badge of charlatans. Or a writer may cultivate the obscure, to seem profound. But even carefully muddied puddles are soon fathomed. Or he may cultivate eccentricity, to seem original. But really original people do not have to think about being original—they can no more help it than they can help breathing. They do not need to dye their hair green.
    (F.L. Lucas, "10 Principles of Effective Style," 1955)

For the complete collection, visit Classic Essays on English Prose Style.

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Nordquist, Richard. "12 Classic Essays on English Prose Style." ThoughtCo, Jul. 15, 2016, thoughtco.com/classic-essays-on-english-prose-style-3978545. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, July 15). 12 Classic Essays on English Prose Style. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-essays-on-english-prose-style-3978545 Nordquist, Richard. "12 Classic Essays on English Prose Style." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/classic-essays-on-english-prose-style-3978545 (accessed December 18, 2017).