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Swift on Style: Keep It Simple

"Proper words in proper places"

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Swift on Style: Keep It Simple

Jonathan Swift (detail of an oil painting by Charles Jervas; in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Other writers agree: that wise guy of English prose, Jonathan Swift, knew a thing or two about good style:

  • Swift's style is, in its line, perfect; the manner is a complete expression of the matter, the terms appropriate, and the artifice concealed. It is simplicity in the true sense of the word.
    (Samuel Coleridge, "Lecture on Style," 1818)


  • No better style in English prose was ever written, or can be.
    (William Dean Howells, "Preface," Gulliver's Travels, 1913)


  • Swift, the greatest writer of English prose, and the greatest man who has ever written great English prose.
    (T.S. Eliot, The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, 1926)
So when the author of Gulliver's Travels and "A Modest Proposal" offers some free advice on writing, we probably ought to pay attention.

Let's start with his famous definition of style as "proper words in proper places." Short and sweet. But then, we might ask, who's to say what's "proper"? And just what does Swift's maxim really mean?

To find out, let's return to the source.

Swift's cryptic definition of style appears in the essay "Letter to a Young Gentleman Lately Entered Into Holy Orders" (1721). There he identifies clarity, directness, and freshness of expression as the chief qualities of a "proper" style:

And truly, as they say a man is known by his company, so it should seem that a man's company may be known by his means of expressing himself, either in public assemblies or private conversations.

It would be endless to run over the several defects of style among us. I shall therefore say nothing of the mean and paltry (which are usually attended by the fustian), much less of the slovenly or indecent. Two things I will just warn you against: the first is, the frequency of flat unnecessary epithets; and the other is, the folly of using old threadbare phrases, which will often make you go out of your way to find and apply them, are nauseous to rational hearers, and will seldom express your meaning as well as your own natural words.

Although, as I have already observed, our English tongue is too little cultivated in this kingdom, yet the faults are, nine in ten, owing to affectation, and not to the want of understanding. When a man's thoughts are clear, the properest words will generally offer themselves first, and his own judgment will direct him in what order to place them so as they may be best understood. Where men err against this method, it is usually on purpose, and to show their learning, their oratory, their politeness, or their knowledge of the world. In short, that simplicity without which no human performance can arrive to any great perfection is nowhere more eminently useful than in this.
Always think of your audience, Swift advises, and don't baffle them with "obscure terms" and "hard words." Lawyers, surgeons, clergy, and especially academics should avoid using jargon when communicating with outsiders. "I know not how it comes to pass," he says, "that professors in most arts and sciences are generally the worst qualified to explain their meaning to those who are not of their tribe."

One of the wittiest writers in the English language, Swift understood that his gift was rare:

I cannot forbear warning you, in the most earnest manner, against endeavoring at wit in your sermons, because by the strictest computation it is very near a million to one that you have none; and because too many of your calling have consequently made themselves everlastingly ridiculous by attempting it.
In other words, don't try to be a joker if you can't tell a joke. And at all times, keep it simple.

Sound advice, right? But keeping it simple--putting "proper words in proper places"--is a lot harder than it sounds. As Sir Walter Scott once said, "Swift's style seems so simple that one would think any child might write as he does, and yet if we try we find to our despair that it is impossible" (quoted in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature).

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