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The way we write now

Adam Gopnik’s article on G.K. Chesterton in the current number of The New Yorker, “The Back of the World,” has this succinct account of main currents in English prose:

There are two great tectonic shifts in English writing. One occurs in the early eighteenth century, when Addison and Steele begin The Spectator and the stop-and-start of Elizabethan-Stuart prose becomes the smooth, Latinate, elegantly wrought ironic style that dominated English writing for two centuries. Gibbon made it sly and ornate; Johnson gave it sinew and muscle; Dickens mocked it at elaborate comic length. But the style—formal address, long windups, balance sought for and achieved—was still a sort of default. …

The second big shift occurred just after the First World War, when, under American and Irish pressure (Flaubert doing his work through early Joyce and Hemingway), a new form of aerodynamic prose came into being. The new style could be as limpid as Waugh or as blunt as Orwell or as funny as White and Benchley, but it dethroned the old orotundity as surely as Addison had killed off the old asymmetry. … Writers like Shaw and Chesterton depended on a kind of comic and complicit hyperbole: every statement is an overstatement, and understood as such by readers. The new style prized understatement, to be filled in by the reader.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:09 PM | | Comments (1)


Of course, some percentage of folks will consider the latter shift a "dumbing down" of writing in general.

In the field of technical writing, we've seen, if not a tectonic shift, at least a move away from the academic formality of, say, 50 years ago to writing that at least involves the second person. (Of course, some percentage of folks will consider that the sometimes extreme casualness of technical writing on the Web has just gone too darn far.) It is certainly an interesting experience to pick up a computer manual from, dunno, 1968 and compare it to the kind of writing done these days for computer users. Not quite like swapping between Johnson and E. B. White, but of that flavor.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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