Friday, September 30, 2011

Periphrasis: Speaking Around

I’ve been rewriting this week—rewriting not my own work but rather essays written by other scholars.  By far the greatest problem with the texts I’m working with is a lack of clarity and conciseness. The authors of these articles are erudite people with impressive credentials, but they are unable to communicate their knowledge simply and directly to their designated audience. Untangling meaning from convoluted, wordy sentences reminded me of a sentence from George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946). “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”

I recognize that academic prose tends to be inflated and embellished, but I also know that periphrasis, or circumlocution (the use of unnecessarily wordy and indirect language), is not exclusive to academicians. I’m finding that pruning and recasting cumbersome sentences written by others is making me more conscious of my own verbal vices.

You will find listed below twenty extreme examples of circumlocution. The first is from George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”; number 15 is my contribution. The others are from unknown sources. (I know some of these are posted on various sites. But I have had a list that includes most of them in my files since 1978, so I know they are not original to the posters.)

  1. 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.
  1. An ave reposing in the digital flanges is of greater monetary value than a duet in the shrubbery.
  1. A mobile section of petrified matter agglomerates no bryophytes.
  1. Desist from enumerating your fowl prior to their emergence from the shell.
  1. Scintillation is not always identification for an auric substance.
  1. A plethora of culinary specialists has a deleterious effect upon the quality of purees, consumes, and other soluble pabula.  
  1. A chronic disposition of inquiry deprived the domestic feline carnivorous quadruped of vital quality.
  1.  It is in the realm of possibility to entice an equine member of the animal kingdom to a source of oxidized hydrogen; however, it is not possible to force him to imbibe.
  1. Persons deficient in the faculty of determining values move with impetuosity into places which purely spiritual beings view with some trepidation. 
  1. If John persists without respite on a constant prolonged exertion of physical or intellectual effort, he will develop into a youth slow and blunted to perception and sensibility.
  1. Immediately upon the absence of the domesticated carnivorous feline, the common rodent proceeds to engage in sportive capers.

  1. Unselfish concern for the well being of others has its genesis in the personal domicile of the individual.
  1. Cautiously survey the perspective prior to going forward precipitously.
  1. Aberration is the hallmark of Homo sapiens while longanimous placability and condonation are the indicia of supramundane omniscience.
  1. Consumption for nutriment of the round fruit of any of various wild or cultivated trees of the genus Malus regularly during the time occupied by the earth in one revolution on its axis causes the medical practitioner to remain absent or afar. 
  1. If a large solid-hoofed mammal becomes available to you without compensation, refrain from casting your faculty for seeing into the oral cavity of such a creature. 
  1. Each vaporous mass suspended in the firmament has an interior decoration of metallic hue. 
  1. He who locks himself into the arms of Morpheus promptly at eventide, and starts the day before it is officially announced by the rising sun, excels in physical fitness, increases his economic assets and celebrates with remarkable efficiency.
  1. Superfluous chronological dispatch institutes riddance of valued effects.
  1. A body of persons abiding in a domicile of silica combined with metallic oxides should not carelessly project small geological specimens.
What are your verbal vices? Do you notice the verbal vices of your favorite writers, or do you think they are free of them? Finally, how many of the inflated proverbs can you translate into simple English? I will post the answers Monday, and I’ll give away a book from my contest stash to one randomly selected poster (Sorry--U. S. addresses only).

The Answers:

  1. I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor yet bread to the wise, not yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9.11)
  2. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
  3. A rolling stone gathers no moss.
  4. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
  5. All that glitters is not gold.
  6. Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  7. Curiosity killed the cat.
  8. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it.
  9. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
  10. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
  11. While the cat’s away, the mice shall play.
  12. Charity begins at home.
  13. Look before you leap.
  14. To err is human; to forgive, divine.
  15. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
  16. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
  17. Every cloud has a silver lining.
  18. Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
  19. Haste makes waste.
  20. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Susan and Irish, if you'll send your contact info to me at jangarho at gmail dot com, I'll send you each a book.


Susan in AZ said...

I could guess all of them except numbers 5 and 19. Woot!

Janga said...

Great, Susan! Be sure to check back Monday afternoon for all the answers and the winner of the book giveaway.

irisheyes said...

I love this blog, Janga!

I used to work for an appraiser who had to write up verbal appraisals on commercial properties. I was his secretary. I made the mistake of going over the first one he gave me and fixing all of his periphrasis or circumlocution - I used to jokingly refer to it as cleaning up his BS!

His every day language wasn't anything to write home to mom about either, but boy could he complicate a sentence. I almost got fired! I thought I was being helpful and doing my job and he was highly insulted. He thought his report made him sound intelligent and I thought just the opposite.

I'll have to go over your examples and see if my skills are still up to par! LOL

Janga said...

Thanks, Irish. I had students who had a lot in common with your boss. I remember one in particular who never understood why she received a C on an essay that was free of grammatical/mechanical errors but bloated with polysyllabic words and convoluted sentences. I'm not sure that it's possible to persuade some people of the power of clarity and simplicity.