Just about a year ago I had an exchange on the internet with Anthony Esolen, the excellent translator and Renaissance Literature professor, concerning use of diction. Professor Esolen was at the time maintaining a blog on writing and word use and etymology at Patheos Catholic forum, called Word of the Day. I really enjoyed it, but unfortunately he seems to have given it up, or at least it’s on pause. I was actually surprised he could keep up with a blog, given the time it takes for all the things he writes and his teaching, if he still teaches. His bio line says he teaches at Providence College.
I generally agreed with whatever writing insight he provided, but a year ago, almost to the day, I had a little disagreement with him. It has stuck in my mind for three reasons. (1) I think it convinced him and (2) I articulated one of my unwritten rules of writing for which I want to document and preserve and (3) it led to a further insight on writing.
I’ve mentioned Anthony Esolen before on this blog before. He was the translator of one of the Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorios I read and blogged on earlier this year. http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/2014/01/book-excerpt-purgatorio-by-dante.html
The point of disagreement had to do with word repetition and searching out synonyms (typically through the use of a Thesaurus). Here’s what he said on his post titled “Grammar Lesson of the Day: Bury the Thesaurus”:
Sometimes my college freshmen tell me that they use a thesaurus to find synonyms, so that they don’t have to use the same word all the time. Using the same word, they’ve been told, is repetitive, and repetition is bad. Well, that’s complete nonsense. I’ll turn to repetition in later lessons. For now, I imagine Jesus saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn are going to be happy too, because they will be comforted.
The inheritance of the earth will belong to the meek, and that will be most fortunate for them.
People who hunger for righteousness will experience a favorable state of affairs …
Anyway, Thesaurus polytropus is a wily old dinosaur. He doesn’t attack head on. He baits his prey by leaving in open view the carcasses of words, and just when you think you’re going to enjoy an easy meal – no hunting, no skinning – pounce! He’s got you by the throat.
The thing is, very few words are really synonymous with one another. This makes English especially baffling for non-native speakers. English is phenomenally rich in words, from the Germanic foundations, from the Viking variants, from the French by way of the Norman Conquest; words borrowed or invented from Latin and Greek from the Renaissance to this day; we even borrow ways of making new words. No language has as many words as English does. No language is even close.
So we use words that are sort-of-synonymous, but assign them to special areas of meaning, with differences in nuance.
You can go over and read the rest and follow his examples. Prof. Esolen’s editing of the Beatitudes eliminated the repetitive words and provided alternatives to avoid the repetition. He’s got a point, but he’s generally wrong here. Here was my reply, which was echoed by others commenting.
I don't fully agree with you on this one. Yes most college students don't know how to use a thesaurus, and being precise is paramount, so if one uses alternative words at the expense of precision then you have reduced your writing. And yes repetition, especially anaphora as in the Beatitudes (as well as other rhetorical uses of repetition), can have a beneficial effect to one's prose. [Notice how I just used the word "prose" instead of repeating "writing" in that last sentence.] But the use of an alternative word that does not sacrifice precision most definitely makes the writing fresher. Repetition without rhetorical construction bores the reader and dulls the composition. [See I used another word there at the end instead of "writing" or "prose."] Knowing how to use synonyms comes with experience.
In a reply to someone who said something similar, Professor Esolen said this:
I do understand your point, though -- and Manny's below. But teachers who believe that a thesaurus is any help for a student who hasn't read broadly are fooling themselves, or don't really understand how people learn to write well.
His point is not that you shouldn’t strive to freshen one’s writing, but that most people don’t use a Thesaurus correctly and wind up using an alternative word when it doesn’t fit. Fair enough. As I said: precision is paramount. Take that as a quote. But here’s the key: repetition without rhetorical construct bores the reader. In Prof. Esolen’s edited Beatitudes, eliminating the repetition also eliminated the rhetorical structuring. Here are the actual first four Beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
The repetition of “Blessed are” at the beginning and “for” at the caesura parts of the sentence creates a rhetorical structure, which in this case is called anaphora.
But here’s something just as important that came to me as I’ve given this thought these past twelve months. Repetition with rhetorical construct livens writing. There are several rhetorical constructs that use repetition and they are worth looking into.
Wikipedia gives some fine examples of anaphora, but let me end with this one. This is from Ezra Pound’s poem Canto XLV of his opus collection of poetry titled, The Cantos, Canto XLV subtitled, “With Usura.” d
By Ezra Pound
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face,
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luz
or where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but it is made to sell and sell quickly
with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper,
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarcation
and no man can find site for his dwelling.
Stonecutter is kept from his stone
weaver is kept from his loom
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
You can read the rest of the poem at Poetry Foundation, though I corrected a typo in the copied passage above. This is not one of my favorite Pound poems, but for some reason it’s much anthologized, and as you can see he makes his point with the anaphoric repetition of “with usura.” What’s usura, you might ask? It’s Spanish or Italian for usury, which was Pound’s way of criticizing modern day commercialism.
So what’s the overall writing moral here? Repetition can help writing and it can hurt writing. Learn to distinguish the difference.