(Cf: Again, our eye passes over printed lines differently from the way it passes over arbitrary pothooks and squiggles. (But I am not speaking here of what can be found out by observing the movement of the eyes of a reader.) The glance slides, one would like to say, entirely unimpeded, without becoming snagged, and yet it doesn’t skid. [Wittgenstein 1953 §168])
Good prose, I suggested, is invisible. And hence, one mistake I had made in one co-authored philosophy piece was picking a co-author who had substantial style aims. I, I suggested (obviously naively), had had none except to render myself invisible.
East Molesey replied “Odd that you think you don’t / should not show in your writing. Perhaps you view what you are doing as letting the ideas and arguments do the work and not your words and your thinking - curious if so!”
Putting this response aside I then stumbled across an article from a week ago in the Guardian on ‘How to write a great sentence?’.
The article raises, and flags some complications in, the issue of why one might aim for a simple writing style.
One very natural way to think of all this is as writing or language as a code for prior thought. One thinks the thought and then finds the right and simplest words with which to express it. Wittgenstein comments about a French politician who thought that French was unique as the only language in which the word order is the same as the order of concepts in thought.
This case is similar to the one in which someone imagines that one could not think a sentence with the curious word order of German or Latin just as it stands. One first has to think it, and then one arranges the words in that strange order. (A French politician once wrote that it was a peculiarity of the French language that in it words occur in the order in which one thinks them.) [Wittgenstein 1953 §336]
Wittgenstein suggests some exercises of saying a sentence while thinking the thought, saying one without thinking the other and thinking the other without saying the first. His suggestion seems to be that the thought is in the words not prior to them. He also draws an analogy with the interdependence of notes and their expression in music.
But if so, what of the strange sentence discussed in the Guardian article attributed to Kate Moss: "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels"? Suppose one thinks that the way those words are used is odd. The article provides a reason to think so. It says:
Skinny, usually an adjective, is here turned into an abstract noun, paired with another abstract noun, nothing. And yet skinny is also quasi-concrete, because where it lies in the sentence suggests that it can actually be felt, just as food has a taste. But feels also retains its non-sensuous sense of intuiting or experiencing something: skinny feels good. As the sentence ends with the snap of a stressed syllable, our perspective has been altered in a way that feels true, even if we don’t share the sentiment. Reality has shifted a little and then clicked back into place.
If the words are used in some strained (by contrast with normal), novel and non-standard context, then what thought was expressed - oddly - by those words in this non-standard way? What would be the underlying thought stripped of the odd way of putting it? (If that sentence is not weird enough, one can always ask it of one that more obviously is.)
Following the line of thought in John McDowell's account of Davidsonian truth theories, I think the only way to state the thought expressed with words oddly used is with the very same words used in the same odd way. The sentence "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" states that / means / is true iff nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
One has to have ears to hear the second part of that long sentence in the right way. Truths about meaning require the right audience. So I'd say, in response to the question my correspondent asked: the ideas and arguments should/do indeed do the work as expressed in the words and thoughts. Preferences about style are preferences about thinking and thoughts.
The Guardian article goes on to note the way that linking words are much less used to carry implications from one sentence to the next now compared to the past.
Sentences have become less shackled to each other. Those written a few hundred years ago typically began with a whereof or a howsobeit, to resume an unfinished thought. And they used lots of conjunctive adverbs, those connecting words like moreover, namely and indeed. Such adverbs are in historical retreat. The use of indeed peaked in print in the 18th century and has been declining ever since. The number of howevers and moreovers has been falling since the 1840s.
That raises a nice related example. Imagine we had a two sentences or thoughts:
- Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
- Don't eat that Yorkshire pudding!
In the past (if the history in the article is correct), we might have written or said, with a suitable connection:
- Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. So, don't eat that Yorkshire pudding!
- Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. So, so don't eat that Yorkshire pudding!
Just as we might need eyes to see or ears to hear the words used as they are in Kate Moss' sentence, so we need eyes to see or ears to hear how one sentence is a reason for the next, to grasp the whole thought expressed. The style and the thought say, and need to say, the same.