Friday, March 4, 2011

The Power of Short, Simple, and Surprising

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Let us settle our indifferences (Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Well-Tempered Sentence 15).

The Well-Tempered Sentence

What a delightful sentence! It is exceedingly short, the sort of sentence celebrated with the February 11, 2011 post. Its brevity is part of its punch.

Let us settle our indifferences is also a fresh, new spin on an oft used expression that may be as old as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (5th century B. C.). In that text, Thucydides reports that an Athenian said, “let us settle our differences by arbitration.” When Gordon turns the phrase on its head by suggesting we should settle our indifferences, she jars our imaginations and guarantees that we will consider her meaning rather than take it for granted. Trying to do the same can produce clever, even funny declarations.

Consider the old English saying, now being used for a Geico ad: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. When an English teacher asked her elementary school children to re-imagine the proverb, she gave them just the beginning, A bird in the hand is . . . . Her literal-minded students completed the old saying with:

• messy.
• hard to hold on to.
• mean. Let it go.

Try your hand at re-inventing classic and sometimes cliché expressions. Several appear below.

• Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
• Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
• Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
• There’s no place like home.
• An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Gordon’s sentence also packs a punch because the pay-off is the last word. This pattern is very effective in delivering messages. For example, “’You are always late and unwelcome . . . .” (Gordon 16). At first, the complaint seems petulant, but the speaker’s lament turns nasty when the speaker makes it clear that being late is not the real issue.

Try writing sentences in which the key word, the real point, appears at the end

Reading Challenge:

Read Ernest Hemingway, well known for short, spare prose. Two of my favorite Hemingway stories are “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” in a 1933 collection entitled Winner Take Nothing and “Hills Like White Elephants,” first published in 1917 in Men Without Women. As you read these, examine the sentence constructions and imitate those that inspire you.

Writing Challenge:

The post is a writing challenge, especially if your follow through with the Reading Challenge above.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Short simple sentences like the ones used as illustrations in this post require a capital letter for the word that begins the sentence and a period to close the sentence.