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On Conciseness of Style in Writing and Conversation, by Vicesimus Knox

"To say much in few words is certainly a great excellence"


On Conciseness of Style in Writing and Conversation, by Vicesimus Knox

Vicesimus Knox (1752—1821)

A vocal opponent of political despotism and war, Vicesimus Knox was a noted British preacher and essayist. He is especially remembered for his Essays, Moral and Literary (1778) and Elegant Extracts (1784), a compilation of literary passages.

In this essay, Knox argues that one of the effects of concise writing and speaking may lie in "the pleasure which a reader, or spectator, takes in having something left for his own sagacity to discover." Another essay by Knox, "On Inscriptions and the Lapidary Style," might be viewed as a companion to this one.

On Conciseness of Style in Writing and Conversation

by Vicesimus Knox

A celebrated French writer, remarkable for conciseness of style, in a letter to a friend which he had made rather longer than usual, apologizes for its prolixity, by saying, that he had not time to write a shorter.

To say much in few words is certainly a great excellence, and at the same time a great difficulty in composition. The mind naturally dwells on a strong conception, views it on every side, and expresses its variety of lights in as great a variety of words; but the amplification of a sentence, though it may add to its perspicuity, frequently diminishes its force: as the scattered sunbeams diffuse only a gentle heat, but are able to burn when collected in the focus.

Brevity of expression is sometimes the mark of conscious dignity and virtue. It was manliness of sentiment, and haughtiness of soul, which gave rise to the laconic style. When the tyrant of Macedon menaced the Lacedemonians, the answer they returned was comprised in these few words: "Dionysius is at Corinth." To understand which, it is necessary to call to mind, that Dionysius, tyrant of Sicily, had been dethroned by his people, and compelled to earn his bread by setting up a little school at Corinth. Such a document, expressed in so brief a manner, must have struck the mind with more force than the laboured periods of an Isocrates, or the diffusion of a Cicero.

It is well known, that Sallust was an enemy to the great orator of Rome. One would almost imagine, from the difference of their style, that the disagreement extended to matters of taste and literature. Sallust always labours to express his ideas in the fewest words. Cicero delights in amplification. It has been said, however, that a man of true taste would rather have written that beautiful parallel between Cato and Caesar than all the Philippics.

Many critics have employed their talents in making comparisons between Demosthenes and Tully. All of them agree in attributing to the former conciseness, and to the latter diffusion: and according to this judgment they have not hesitated to give the preference to the Athenian. The concise vehemence of Demosthenes carried all before it by violence; the prolixity of Cicero gained ground by the soft arts of insinuation. The effect of the former was sudden and irresistible; that of the latter, weak and dilatory.

In the denouement of a modern tragedy, we find the heroes and heroines expressing their grief in pompous declamation. But notwithstanding the actor mouths out his plaints in all the grandeur of lengthened periods, and with all the vehemence of studied action, the audience frequently sit unmoved, and are more disposed to smile than to weep. In the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles, Jocasta, when she discovers her own and her husband's situation as deplorable as can well be conceived, immediately retires from the stage, repeating only these words, "Alas! alas! wretched man that thou art--this only can I say to thee--henceforth, for ever silent." Corneille would have put, at least, fifty monotonous lines into her mouth, without half the effect.

Military harangues derive their chief beauty from an expressive brevity. Livy abounds with short speeches, consisting of hardly more than half a dozen words, in which generals animated their soldiers to rush on to danger and death. But ancient history scarcely affords any instance more striking than that of a French king, who thus addressed his men immediately before an attack: "I am your General--you are Frenchmen--there are the enemy."

Conciseness of narration, whether in writing or in speaking, is a mark of truth. To introduce a multitude of proofs and asseverations, is tacitly to confess, that what is said stands in great need of corroboration. One of our English sects, which professes a singular love of truth and plain dealing, has almost made it a tenet of their religion to use no other words in denying, or asserting, than the single particles of negation and affirmation: and a poet of antiquity remarks, that many promises and professions, instead of strengthening, weaken our belief.

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