Roman doctor and philosopher Galen
The chief merit of language is clearness, and we know that nothing detracts so
much from this as unfamiliar terms. Use terms which the bulk of people are
accustomed to use.
Roman historian Suetonius on Crates of Mallus: Greek
grammarian and philosopher
He had the misfortune to fall into an open sewer in Rome and broke his leg.
While recovering, he gave frequent lectures, carefully instructing his hearers,
and he has left us an example well worthy of imitation. It was so far followed,
that poems little known, the works either of deceased friends or other
approved writers, were being read, commented on, and explained to others.
Greek polymath Aristotle
It is a general rule that a written composition should be easy to read and
therefore easy to deliver. This cannot be so where there are many connecting
words or clauses, or where punctuation is hard.
Let the subject choose the language. Your language will be appropriate if it
expresses emotion and character, and if it corresponds to its subject.
Greek orator Isocrates
I should have discussed these matters with you at greater length, and perhaps
also in a more attractive style, were I not under the stern necessity of writing
the letter in haste.
Greek philosopher Plutarch on Spartan lawmaker
With strange people, strange words must be admitted; these novelties produce
novelties in thought. And on these follow views and feelings whose discordant
character destroys the harmony of the state. He was as careful to save his city
from the infection of foreign bad habits, as men usually are to prevent the
introduction of a disease.
Greek playwright Aristophanes
When we what faithless is do faithful hold
And what is faithful faithless . . .
How's that? I don't understand.
Speak with less erudition and more clarity.
When a word seems to involve some inconsistency of meaning, we should
consider how many senses it may have in the passage.
Strange words, compound words, and invented words must be used sparingly.
It is precisely because such phrases are not part of the current idiom that they
give distinction to the style.
Metaphor gives style clearness, charm, and distinction as nothing else can and
the foundation of good style is correct language. Style will be made agreeable
by a good blend of ordinary and unusual words, by the rhythm, and by the
persuasiveness that springs from appropriateness.
Free-running style is unsatisfying just because it goes on indefinitely. It’s
always good to see a stopping place ahead. It is only at the goal that men in a
race faint and collapse; while they see the end of the course before them, they
can keep on going. Such, then, is the free-running kind of style. The compact is
that which is in periods. By a period I mean a portion of speech that has in itself
a beginning and an end, being at the same time not too big to be taken in at a
glance. Language of this kind is satisfying and easy to follow.
Roman courtier Gaius Petronius
It is the parents deserving censure, who will not give their children the
advantages of strict training. Their hopes are centred in ambition, and they
hurry lads into the forum when still raw and half taught, giving mere babes the
mantle of eloquence, an art they admit themselves is second to none in
difficulty. If only they would let them advance step by step, so that serious
students might be broken in by solid reading. Steady their minds with
philosophy; hone their style with unsparing correction; study deep and long,
and refuse to be dazzled by puerile graces.
Roman lawyer Cicero
Style, to be good, must be clear, just as speech that fails to convey a plain
meaning will fail to do just what speech has to do. A natural style is persuasive.
A writer must disguise his art and give the impression of speaking naturally and
not artificially. Naturalness is persuasive, artificiality is the contrary.
Greek philosopher Heracleides Lembus on Alexarchus,
Macedonian founder of Uranopolis
Alexarchus introduced peculiar expressions, calling the cock ‘dawn crier’, the
barber ‘mortal–shaver’, the drachma ‘a silver bit’, the quart measure ‘daily
feeder’, the herald ‘loud bawler’. Once he sent this strange message to a town
founded by his brother:
‘Alexarchus, to the Authorities of Brother’s Town, joy:
Our sun-fleshed yearns, I what, and dams that which guard the hills where they
were born, have been visited by the fateful dome of the gods in might,
fresheting them hence from the forsaken fields.’
What this letter means, I fancy, not even the Oracle at Delphi could make out.
Plutarch on Greek orator Demosthenes
He believed it was the more truly popular act to use premeditation, such
preparation being a kind of respect to the people. But to slight and take no care
how what is said is likely to be received by the audience, shows something of
an oligarchical temper, and is the course of one intending force rather than
Greek grammarian Athenaeus on Dionysius 1 ruler of
He called a maiden a ‘wait-man’ because she waits for a husband, a pillar
‘stand-hold’ because it stands and holds, a javelin ‘hurl-against’ because it is
hurled against a man, mouse holes ‘mice-keepers’ because they guard mice.
He also called the pig ‘squealer’ and the ox an ‘earth–carer’.
Words and expressions must be clear, concise, probable, intelligible,
agreeable. Clearness is produced by common words, appropriate, well
arranged, in a well-rounded period. Obscurity is caused by either lengthy
sentences, or too great a contraction of the sentence, or by ambiguity, or by
any misuse or alteration of the ordinary sense of the words. But brevity is
produced by simple words, by speaking only once on each point, by aiming at
no one object except speaking clearly.
Roman lawyer Pliny the Younger
I ask you to revise again the speech I made to my fellow-townsmen. You have
already obliged me by annotating some things, but only in a general way. And
so I now beg of you not only to take a general view of the whole speech, but go
over it in detail. When you have corrected it, I shall still be able to publish or
Using language is like the currency of coinage in trade. Coinage which is
familiar and well known is also acceptable, although it takes on a different value
at different times. But there was a time when men used as the coinage of
speech, verses and tunes and songs, and reduced to poetic and musical form
all history and philosophy, every experience and action that required a more
impressive utterance. Today, few people have even a limited understanding of
As language became less ornate, history also became prose, so that the truth
was mostly sifted from the fabulous. Philosophy welcomed clearness and
teachability, through using everyday language. No longer were citizens ‘fire-
blazers,’ the Spartans ‘snake-devourers,’ men ‘mountain-roamers,’ and rivers
‘mountain-engorgers.’ Epic versification, strange words, circumlocutions, and
vagueness, made way for consultants to talk as the laws talk to States, or as
kings meet with common people, or as pupils listen to teachers, since the
language adapted to what was intelligible and convincing.
Pliny the Younger
You have marked some passages in my writing as excessive, but I think they
are appropriate, or boldly sublime. Consider whether your criticism turns upon
real faults, or only striking and remarkable expressions. Whatever is elevated is
sure to be observed, but it needs fine judgment to distinguish the bounds
between true and false grandeur, between loftiness and exaggeration. So,
attack them if it suits you, but let me know when we may meet to discuss these
matters. You will then either teach me to be less daring or I shall teach you to
be more bold.
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius
From Rusticus I learnt to write my letters with simplicity, and from Alexander
the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding and not belittle those who use
incorrect grammar, foreign, or strange-sounding expressions. Carefully
introduce the expression that ought to have been used, and question the thing
itself, not focusing on the word or just an alternative.
Roman educator Quintilian
Some writers are consumed with a passion for brevity and omit words which
are actually necessary to the sense, regarding it as a matter of complete
indifference whether their meaning is intelligible to others, so long as they know
what they mean themselves. I regard as useless words which make such a
demand upon the ingenuity of the hearer. I regard clearness as the first
essential of a good style. There must be propriety in our words; their order must
be straightforward. The conclusion of the period must not be long postponed
and there must be nothing lacking and nothing superfluous. Thus our language
will be approved by the learned and clear to the uneducated.
Plutarch on Isocrates
Demosthenes was very eager to learn from him, but could not afford 1000
drachmas, so offered a fifth, two hundred drachmas, if he would teach him an
edited fifth part of his art. Isocrates answered, ‘We do not, Demosthenes,
impart our skill by halves, but as men sell good fish whole, if you desire to
learn, we will teach you our full art, and not a piece of it.’
1. A sentence should never be so long that it is impossible to follow its
2. Archaic words give style a certain majesty and charm since they have the
authority of age behind them. But such words must be used sparingly and
must not thrust themselves upon readers, since there is nothing more
tiresome than affectation. The best words give the impression of simplicity
3. We must avoid more words than are necessary; every word which neither
helps the sense nor the style may be regarded as faulty.
4. An impudent, disorderly, or angry tone is always unseemly.
Pliny the Younger
To delight and to persuade needs time and a great command of language;
I would rather be convinced by argument than by authority.
Authors wanting to please, will fashion their works to popular taste. Here, the
florid style is most proper, and I do not think the vivid colouring I have used will
be thought foreign and unnatural. But I am concerned that people will dislike
diction where it is most simple and not ornate. Nevertheless, I sincerely wish
there will be a time, and that it was now, when the smooth and luscious, which
has affected our style, shall give place, as it ought, to severe and chaste
Plutarch on Demosthenes
When he first addressed the people he was derided for his strange and
uncouth style, which was weighed down with long sentences and tortured with
harsh and excessive formal arguments.
Plutarch on Alexander of Macedon
When he heard Aristotle had published some works . . . he wrote to him, using
very plain language to him on behalf of philosophy, the following letter.
‘Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books
of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things
which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I
assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than
in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.’
Some writers introduce a whole host of useless words. Eager to avoid ordinary
methods of expression, and allured by false ideas of beauty, they wrap up
everything in a multitude of words simply and solely because they are unwilling
to make a direct and simple statement of the facts. And then they link up and
involve one of those long-winded clauses with others like it, and extend their
periods to a length beyond the compass of mortal breath.
Pliny the Younger
A letter is one thing, a history another; it is one thing writing to a friend, another
thing writing to the public. Take care composing your letters and use concise
and simple expression.
I was afraid I had not guarded my expressions in a letter as you will be able to
do in a speech. The face, the gesture, and even the tone of voice govern and
determine the sense of the speaker, but a letter, without these advantages, is
more liable to malignant misinterpretation.
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