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Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 4th ed., by Jacques Barzun (Harper Perennial, 2001)


In speech and writing, the quality of being straightforward and concise: stating a main point early and clearly without embellishments or digressions. Contrast with circumlocution, verbosity, and indirectness.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "The whole world will tell you, if you care to ask, that your words should be simple & direct. Everybody likes the other fellow's prose plain. It has even been said that we should write as we speak. That is absurd . . .. Most speaking is is not plain or direct, but vague, clumsy, confused, and wordy. . . . What is meant by the advice to write as we speak is to write as we might speak if we spoke extremely well. This means that good writing should not sound stuffy, pompous, highfalutin, totally unlike ourselves, but rather, well--'simple & direct.'

    "Now, the simple words in the language tend to be the short ones that we assume all speakers know; and if familiar, they are likely to be direct. I say 'tend to be' and 'likely' because there are exceptions. . . .

    "Prefer the short word to the long; the concrete to the abstract; and the familiar to the unfamiliar. But:

    "Modify these guidelines in the light of the occasion, the full situation, which includes the likely audience for your words."
    (Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 4th ed. Harper Perennial, 2001)

  • "Statements may be strong and direct or they may be softer and less direct. For example, consider the range of sentences that might be used to direct a person to take out the garbage:
    Take out the garbage!
    Can you take out the garbage?
    Would you mind taking out the garbage?
    Let's take out the garbage.
    The garbage sure is piling up.
    Garbage day is tomorrow.
    Each of these sentences may be used to accomplish the goal of getting the person to take out the garbage. However, the sentences show varying degrees of directness, ranging from the direct command at the top of the list to the indirect statement regarding the reason the activity needs to be undertaken at the bottom of the list. The sentences also differ in terms of relative politeness and situational appropriateness. . .

    "In matters of directness vs. indirectness, gender differences may play a more important role than factors such as ethnicity, social class, or region, although all these factors tend to intersect, often in quite complex ways, in the determination of the 'appropriate' degree of directness or indirectness for any given speech act."
    (Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, American English: Dialects and Variation. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006)

  • "The U.S. style of directness and forcefulness would be perceived as rude or unfair in, say, Japan, China, Malaysia, or Korea. A hard-sell letter to an Asian reader would be a sign of arrogance, and arrogance suggests inequality for the reader."
    (Philip C. Kolin, Successful Writing at Work. Cengage, 2009)
Pronunciation: de-REK-ness
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