Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Herbert Spencer on counting syllables

with 3 comments

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

3 Responses

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  1. I find it funny that Mr. Spencer is using so many splendiferous words to say, in essence, “Keep it short and simple.” :-)

    Tammy J Rizzo

    August 18, 2013 at 8:17 pm

  2. Yes, it’s funny, isn’t it?


    August 20, 2013 at 8:26 am

  3. It’s also funny that, while I know what all of his words mean, and while I understand his general gist, each sentence by itself is incredibly puzzling. I guess I need to read more old works beyond Sherlock Holmes and Mark Twain, because the language they used to use was just beautiful, though rather unintelligible in its floridity.

    Tammy J Rizzo

    August 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm

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