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TOP writing TIPS and quips from Greece and Rome


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Greeks and Romans set the scene for modern, efficient writing.

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TOP writing TIPS and quips from Greece and Rome

  1. 1. From Greece and Rome Volume 1
  2. 2. 170 AD 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. 100 AD 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. 2
  3. 3. 350 BC 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. 400 BC 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. 3
  4. 4. 70 AD Greek philosopher Plutarch on Spartan lawmaker Lycurgus 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. 400 BC Greek playwright Aristophanes Euripides When we what faithless is do faithful hold And what is faithful faithless . . . Dionysus How's that? I don't understand. Speak with less erudition and more clarity. 4
  5. 5. Aristotle 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. 5
  6. 6. 50 AD 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. 60 BC 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. 6
  7. 7. 170 BC 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. 7
  8. 8. 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 persuasion. 290 AD Greek grammarian Athenaeus on Dionysius 1 ruler of Syracuse 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’. 8
  9. 9. Cicero 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. 1OO AD 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 suppress it. 9
  10. 10. Plutarch 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 this diction. 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. 10
  11. 11. 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. 170 AD 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. 11
  12. 12. 60 AD 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.’ 12
  13. 13. Quintilian 1. A sentence should never be so long that it is impossible to follow its meaning. 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 and reality. 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. 13
  14. 14. 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 composition. 14
  15. 15. 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.’ 15
  16. 16. Quintilian 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. 16
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