Robert Frost once wrote that of modern poets he alone was trying to create poetry out of what he called “the sound of sense.” He wasn’t; there were other poets at the time trying to create the same kind of poetry, such as the wildly underappreciated British poet, Charlotte Mew. But Frost alone was talking explicitly about this “sound of sense.”
The sound of sense, he explained in a letter to a friend, was what you could make out about what people were saying when you heard them talking behind a closed door. Even if you couldn’t hear the actual words they were saying, you could still get a good sense of the tenor of their conversation from just the tones and rhythms and colors of their voices. That’s the sound of sense.
My grandmother understood the sound of sense. I remember when I was a boy hearing her scold one of my wiseass uncles: “Don’t you take that tone with me!” Whatever my uncle had said, whatever his actual words, it was his sardonic tone she wasn’t going to tolerate, and you can hear unmistakably in her reply the sound of a different sense.
Frost is talking about idioms, ways that we use language to communicate beyond simply the meaning of the words. Idioms are so germane to my way of thinking about writing that I imagine writing to be an intricate weave of idiomatic rhythms—rhythms that readers will recognize, cadences that seem to go hand-in-hand with the cognitive sense of the words.
In his letter Frost alludes also to writing that has sense but without the sound of it. Such writing, he says, makes for “dull reading.” And I’m sure he’s talking about bureaucratic writing, writing that goes out of its way to not—I repeat, not—sound like anything you’d ever hear a person say, writing that makes a point of avoiding the kind of idioms that inform the language of our conversations. Such writing sounds like it was written by a dictionary.
In 1946, George Orwell chastises such writing in his landmark essay, “Politics and the English Language.” To show us how this kind of writing differs from the human voice, Orwell rewrites a famous passage from Ecclesiastes. Here’s the original (from the King James Bible, hence the archaic verb):
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Orwell rewrites this in English “of the worst sort,” i.e., bureaucratese:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Orwell’s rewrite captures the abstract cognitive meaning of the words, their “sense,” but without the sound of speech, the vital and vivid language that comes from our mouths.
That was in 1946. Oh baby, have we come a long way.
Orwell criticizes language that has sense but no human touch, no “sound of sense.” Here in the 21st century bureaucratic language has reached a stage Orwell didn’t even countenance. Both Frost and Orwell talk about language with sense and language with the sound of sense. Today, we see language that has neither. Take a gander at this little gem—a real world example, I kid you not:
In instances where criteria do determine an aspect of significance, because that aspect is not logically describable, no criteria are used.
What could this possibly mean? Trust me, context gave no clue. The sentence is a snake that eats its own tail, consuming itself as it goes along. It’s a rope burning at both ends. By the time you finish reading the sentence, you’re left with nothing but a little pile of ashes and the faint suspicion that you’re being hoodwinked.
When I encountered this sentence, I just sat back in my chair and let out a long, low whistle of admiration. I was awestruck, really, at such utter inscrutability. It’s a thing of beauty. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to write a sentence like this.
And seriously, when the public record is full of garbage like this, is it any wonder that so many Americans seem to think government is simply nefarious?
Here’s one more example—not quite the same tour de force as the first; you can see there’s some meaning hovering vaguely in the distance. But the sentence is nothing but sound—a common bureaucratic idiom that, in this instance, means nothing.
After five years, we will review the five-year agreement to determine whether to keep it in effect or to renew it.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t see the problem right away. Some of the best readers I know missed it at first glance. My friend Scott Miller saw it immediately and let out a loud guffaw, but Scott’s an economist and has trained himself to look for value, real meaning, behind words and numbers.
Why do we write sentences like the two examples above? What has gone haywire in our pointed little bureaucratic heads that we imagine that language like this actually communicates?
Stay tuned. Next time, The Sound of Writing, Part 2.
Finally, I want to thank Clint Farr for his compelling defense of Strunk & White against my capricious histrionics. As I noted way back in the second installment of this column in September 2014, when I started college and decided it was time for me to learn how to write like a grownup, someone recommended The Elements of Style. I bought it, read it, and committed it to memory. Clint is right: it’s not the end of the conversation on how to write well, but it is a very good place to start.
• Jim Hale can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website, https://www.jimhalewriting.com. The Alaska Press Club in April 2016 awarded him the Suzan Nightingale Award for Best Columnist for his “On Writing” column.