Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 18th, 2013

Herbert Spencer on counting syllables

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Herbert Spencer

If it be an advantage to express an idea in the smallest number of words, then will it be an advantage to express it in the smallest number of syllables. If circuitous phrases and needless expletives distract the attention and diminish the strength of the impression produced, then do surplus articulations do so. A certain effort, though commonly an inappreciable one, must be required to recognize every vowel and consonant. If, as all know, it is tiresome to listen to an indistinct speaker, or read a badly written manuscript; and if, as we cannot doubt, the fatigue is a cumulative result of the attention needed to catch successive syllables; it follows that attention is in such cases absorbed by each syllable. And if this be true when the syllables are difficult of recognition, it will also be true, though in a less degree, when the recognition of them is easy. Hence, the shortness of Saxon words becomes a reason for their greater force. One qualification, however, must not be overlooked. A word which in itself embodies the most important part of the idea to be conveyed, especially when that idea is an emotional one, may often with advantage be a polysyllabic word. Thus it seems more forcible to say, “It is magnificent,” than “It is grand.” The word vast is not so powerful a one as stupendous. Calling a thing nasty is not so effective as calling it disgusting.

Herbert Spencer, The Philosophy of Style

Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

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