Farnsworth’s Classical English Style | Book Review


If you write for a living, or if, like me, you edit, or even if you simply like to pop the hood of English to see how the language works, you ought to read Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. It identifies “principles of style that are powerful and enduring,” illustrating them with quotations from masters of English prose such as the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill.

The book’s central insight is that “rhetorical power can be created by various sorts of oppositions—by the relationship, usually one of friction or contrast, between two things. The two things might be plain and fancy words, long and short sentences, hard and soft syllables, high or rich substance and low or simple style (or vice versa), the concrete and the abstract, the passive and the active, the dignified and the coarse, detachment from the audience and engagement with it.”

The book’s first three chapters focus on style questions that arise from the fact that contemporary English grows mostly from Anglo-Saxon and Latinate roots. Consequently, when choosing words, an author can harvest concrete, often one-beat Saxon words, or abstract, often polysyllabic Latinate words: for example, light (Saxon) or illumination (Latinate). One rule of thumb is to prefer the short, concrete Saxon words.

Ward Farnsworth argues, however, that the best English prose brings Saxon and Latinate words together fruitfully. (Sometimes, he points out, the issue isn’t etymology so much as it is word length, with Saxon standing in for short words and Latinate for long ones.) You can begin a sentence with Latinate words and end it with Saxon ones: “the Saxon finish.” Or You can do the opposite, “the Latinate finish.” For an example of the Saxon finish, consider this quote from Churchill: “You may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum of their fears.”

Successive chapters address metonymy, hyperbole, sentence length and structure, the passive voice, anacoluthon and related devices, and rhetorical announcements and instructions. The final two chapters address cadence, that is, “variation between stressed and unstressed syllables.” We typically think of cadence in terms of poetic meter: iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls, and so on. Good prose has poetic moments, however, when the cadence of the words makes the sentence sharp and memorable. Consider this anapestic finish—an anapest consists of “three stressed syllables with two unstressed ones between each of them”—from 2 Corinthians 2:15 (KJV): “To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life” (the bold letters are stressed syllables).

(Poetry friends: Both Farnsworth and I know that an anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, so just go with his novel definition of anapestic finish.)

Readers should take note that this is now a how-to book. It identifies stylistic traits and illustrates them copiously. Indeed, the illustrations of good English prose are a selling point for the book. However, Farnsworth does not offer a Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 approach to writing good prose. He simply identifies the principle, illustrates it, and leaves the would-be writer to his or her own devices. And that’s a good thing! Good writing comes from reading good writing and working hard on your own writing to make it good. That kind of writing can’t be prepackaged or bought. It must be earned.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is the third volume in a trilogy. After reading it, I look forward to savoring its predecessors: Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnworth’s Classical English Metaphor.

Book Reviewed
Ward Farnsworth, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style (Boston: David R. Godine, 2020).

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