Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Sesquipedality (3).

Sesquipedality (3). Today: A Synthesis of Style. The problem remains: to what extent is it advisable to use big words? The Fowler brothers generally thought it inadvisable: “Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.” H.W. Fowler & F.G. Fowler, The King’s English 14 (3d ed. 1931). But “prefer” raises an important question: how strong is this preference to be? Sheridan Baker elaborates the idea more fully, and quite sensibly: “‘What we need is a mixed diction,’ said Aristotle, and his point remains true 24 centuries and several languages later. The aim of style, he says, is to be clear but distinguished. For clarity, we need common, current words; but, used alone, these are commonplace, and as ephemeral as everyday talk. For distinction, we need words not heard every minute, unusual words, large words, foreign words, metaphors; but, used alone, these become bogs, vapors, or at worst, gibberish. What we need is a diction that weds the popular with the dignified, the clear current with the sedgy margins of language and thought.” Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist 133 (8th ed. 1998). Intermingling Saxon words with Latin ones gives language variety, texture, euphony, and vitality. The best writers match substance with form. They use language precisely, evocatively, even daringly. So we shouldn’t assume that Hemingwayan spartanism is the only desirable mode, unless we’re ready to indict T.S. Eliot, H.L. Mencken, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Edmund Wilson, and many another masterly writer. For information about that Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Sufficient evidence has accumulated to demonstrate that intelligence is manifested in the use of functional language, and that vocabulary — qualitatively and quantitatively — is one important measure of intelligence.” Cecil W. Mann, “Vocabulary and Intelligence,” in Twentieth Century English 116, 121 (William S. Knickerbocker ed., 1946).
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