You Must Change Your Writing Style: Ward Farnsworth’s Guidebooks to English Virtuosity and Ancient Philosophy

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, The New York Times Book Review put out a call for readers’ favorite literary sentences of the past quarter-century, intending to print a pageful of the best examples. This was meant to correct the “blind spot” of the then-new edition of the Yale Book of Quotations (2006), with its seemingly inexplicable dearth of contributions from writers born after 1950. A month later, the Review’s editor Dwight Garner conceded defeat: “[M]ore than 400 people e-mailed us or posted lines on our Web site,” but “[m]any of the quotes weren’t from writers at all, or were from quite old (or quite dead) ones.” The few that qualified amounted to thin gruel indeed: from Jonathan Safran Foer: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth”; from Irvine Welsh: “If things go a bit dodgy, ah jist cannae be bothered.”

This did not surprise Ward Farnsworth. “Current customs about rhetoric don’t encourage the creation of great and memorable sentences that lend themselves to the kind of display the Times proposed,” he writes in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style (2020). “Usually the apex of modern achievement is a sentence that sets new standards for informality.” That book was the third and latest in a series beginning with Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric (2010) and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor (2006). In parallel, Farnsworth has also written two books on ancient philosophy, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual (2018) and The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook (2021). All were published over the past decade, the same length of time he’s held his formidable day job as dean of the University of Texas School of Law.

These titles may collectively suggest a rather old-fashioned authorial intelligence at work. In our time, we seldom look for guidance to the likes of Socrates or (despite a recent Silicon Valley–inflected revival, duly subject to bien-pensant sneering) the Stoics. Still less do we set great store by virtuosity in the English language, especially in the countries that speak it natively. Elsewhere, educational industries trade lucratively on the promise of competence in what their advertisements claim to be the unchallenged medium of global communication. But in the speech to be heard and writing to be read in, say, the United States of America, competence is the highest state to which many aspire. As Farnsworth writes in Classical English Style, “A large share of books about prose style are about how to avoid mistakes. They explain why bad writing sounds that way. This book is about stylistic virtue.”

The state of that virtue today occasionally visits upon Farnsworth moments of despair, though a despair quite unlike the kind luxuriated in by the common English-usage weenie. “Those who wring their hands about the decline of the language sometimes worry too much about the wrong things,” he argues. “They observe with horror that people confuse uninterested with disinterested, or don’t know when to say fewer and when to say less, or fumble in their use of the apostrophe or other punctuation marks.” Even as they do so, they ignore “the erosion of rhetorical ability, the dwindling of attention spans, the scarcity of speech that inspires and rouses and strikes deep.” When a politician “speaks with utter vacuity and with the rhetorical sophistication of an adolescent,” these guardians of English “look on without comment or alarm because the statesman was free from error. He was merely terrible.”

In this historical moment, discussions of any kind of civilizational decline fairly demand a reference to one statesman in particular: Donald Trump, whose election as president of the United States could, Farnsworth admits, raise doubts as to the continuing relevance of language itself. Yet it was arguably Trump’s rhetorical powers that brought him to office in the first place: “Here was a rich and famous presidential candidate making schoolyard taunts of his rivals, joking about the size of his private parts, and saying whatever shocking thing came to his mind.” Given the man’s status as a celebrity tycoon, “[a] more vivid collision of high and low would be hard to devise, and many people have found it compelling or amusing enough to make all objections seem trivial.” Trump embodied contrast, a concept Farnsworth locates at the core of the increasingly lost verbal arts.

For Farnsworth’s purposes, the most powerful contrasts come between abstract and concrete, between short and long, between emphasis and de-emphasis, between Saxon and Latin. He fills Classical English Style with examples from his favorite masters of the language — a roster that does not include Donald Trump, nor any of his recent predecessors. The most rhetorically skilled American presidents tend to be of another vintage entirely: Farnsworth opens the book by declaring that “Abraham Lincoln wrote more beautifully and memorably than anyone in public life does now.” So, more recently and across the pond, did Winston Churchill, who “often seemed to write as if with a gyroscope: if he veered in one stylistic direction, he would compensate in the other. Abstractions are relieved by imagery, and images are offset by abstractions; short sentences give way to long; little words call for bigger ones, and big ones for little.”

Passages from Churchill’s writings and speeches appear throughout not just Classical English Style but Classical English Metaphor and Classical English Rhetoric as well. So do passages from Lincoln, and indeed from Lincoln’s own major influences, Shakespeare and the King James Bible, which together mark one historical bound of Farnsworth’s examples; the other lands around 1950, the same period in which the material in the Yale Book of Quotations runs dry. One reason is that Shakespeare isn’t read as closely or as widely as he used to be. Nor, for that matter, is the Bible, once “a common source of metaphor and allusion for the orator and author,” as Farnsworth puts it Classical English Metaphor. “Comparisons to its tales often lent gravity and a sense of the universal to a subject” while confirming a “shared membership in a community of readers and perhaps also a community of believers.”

Similarly, references to mythology, ancient history, and even the natural world have over the past few generations lost much of their impact, or at least their vitality. (We all know what it means to cross the Rubicon, but how many know where or even what the Rubicon is?) Modern-day writers and speakers are less familiar with these subjects and so are audiences, “partly because they live different sorts of lives, partly because the aims of formal education have changed, and partly because writers want to reach a wider range of people than they once did.” Some of this could be a continuation of “the remarkable result of some sixty years of popular education” the poet Robert Graves was already bemoaning in 1936: “That practically no illiterates are left, and that practically no literates are left either; nearly everyone is semiliterate, as the suburb has superseded the town and the country.”

Graves doesn’t appear in Farnsworth’s books, though several of his contemporaries do. The most notable is George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four but also of “Politics and the English Language,” a 1946 essay that, like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (1918/1959), has long since attained canonical status on the syllabi of American writing courses. On it rests the bulk of Orwell’s reputation as a secular saint of clarity and concision, thanks not least to the brief list of rules included toward the end. These include: “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out,” and “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” However useful, such rules have not gone undisputed, and much of Farnsworth’s own writing on language constitutes, in effect, an argument against their unthinking application.

“Conventional guides to style often recommend that sentences average about twenty words in length, with some variation to avoid tedium,” Farnsworth writes in Classical English Style. “Like the advice to use Saxon words whenever you can, that advice about sentences can’t quite be described as wrong. But good writers know more than simple advice can capture.” They know, for example, that “sometimes shorter sentences are better, sometimes longer; and great effects can be achieved by contrast between them.” They know “the power of using short and concrete words to restate what has already been said in a longer and more abstract way.” They know that rules, in language as in other fields of human endeavor, are ultimately for rubes; that is to say, they know, as Orwell adds, that they should “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Civilization demands a certain lack of punctiliousness.

In Farnsworth’s view, the civilization of English letters on both sides of the Atlantic peaked in the 19th century. In America, that time produced Lincoln as well as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Jr.; in Britain, it produced Churchill as well as Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Anthony Trollope, and Oscar Wilde. (To Henry James, both lands lay fair claim.) All the writers whose work Farnsworth holds up for examination are long gone, and apart from figures like Frederick Douglass, Mary Wollstonecraft, and George Eliot, all qualify for the stigmatizing label of “dead white men.” Farnsworth chalks this up to his focus on “an intersection of period and genre that was not equally open to all. I wish the world had been otherwise.” But he must also know that virtuosity in language is no more egalitarian than virtue anywhere else.

Many barriers to public speaking and writing have come down since the 19th century. Whatever the desirable consequences, among the undesirable ones is an over-standardization of the teaching process to accommodate the widest possible range of students. Hence the proliferation of rules even blunter than Orwell’s, and more intensely fixated on the direct, often repeated conveyance of a single, unambiguous message. Those posted a few years ago by a popular Twitter account branded as “The Writing Guy” include “Use simple words,” “Use short sentences,” and “Get to the point.” After enough of this sort of thing, as Farnsworth puts it, “[m]any who care about writing have been raised to value clarity and don’t know how to notice anything else.” They do feel the presence of genuine rhetorical power in speech and writing; “[t]hey just aren’t conscious of it and have no tools for explaining its presence or absence.”

Perhaps rules that insist on keeping sentences short, cutting “unnecessary” words, and sticking to the active voice have caught on precisely because of their teachability; perhaps the kind of style on display in Farnsworth’s best that has been written and said is not, strictly speaking, teachable at all. To reach great heights, one follows not instructions, but intuition and imagination. And as Farnsworth writes in Classical English Metaphor, “[t]he process of educating the intuition and imagination is best carried out with light doses of theory and long immersion in examples,” duly included in “heaping quantities” in all his works on language, none of which are simple books of quotations. Each example illustrates one of the many rhetorical, metaphorical, or stylistic techniques Farnsworth categorizes and explains. This straightforward form can nevertheless intimidate: even astute readers may at first despair of distinguishing and retaining the mechanics of prolepsis and polysyndeton, isocolon and anacoluthon.

Whether Lincoln, Churchill, Melville, or Dickens could have named these techniques, they certainly internalized them, consciously or unconsciously, not least through absorption of the words of those who came before them. Some came long, long before them, as revealed by their manifest biblical and Shakespearean influences. Nor would they have ignored the writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, whom Farnsworth also proves willing and able to quote and analyze. The procession of John Milton, Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Johnson leads up to Edmund Burke, who figures heavily into Classical English Rhetoric, Metaphor, and Style. Burke, Farnsworth writes, “is often regarded as the greatest British statesman of the 18th century. As usual, greatness in that sort of reputation goes along with an equivalent mastery of language,” not least an ability to strike sparks off Latinate words against Saxon.

Such sparks, alas, “can be harder to produce now because readers have less patience for Latinate words in the first place.” Of those who still make the attempt, many “give up on Burke because they think he sounds flowery, so the writer who wants to use Burke’s rhetorical ideas is obliged to tone them down.” But in so doing, they can easily lose the ability to pull off such signature Burkean moves as what Farnsworth calls the “Saxon finish,” which necessitates first using Latinate words in order to develop a contrast later. In a speech of 1780, for instance, Burke says that “[t]axing is an easy business. Any projector can contrive new impositions, any bungler can add to the old.” In a letter of 1796, he delivers a Saxon-finished observation of particular pertinence here: “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.”

To the extent that such techniques have lost their viability, “the orchestra,” as Farnsworth metaphorically describes the rhetorical field open to us, has been diminished. This differs only in degree from everyday solecisms like the conflation of uninterested with disinterested, objections to which are less pedantic than they sound. When we let the formerly distinct meanings of two words collapse into one, the range of our instruments narrows, and our linguistic ambitions shrink accordingly. To this, the sentences submitted to The New York Times Book Review stand in impoverished evidence; Dwight Garner’s summation of Jonathan Safran Foer as “the whiz-kid Rod McKuen of his age” sounds even more backhanded now than it did in 2007. Since that year, which saw the introduction of the smartphone, the orchestra of social media has grown ever larger, but also ever more untuned and cacophonous.

“The ancient Romans built elaborate networks of pipes to deliver water where they wanted it to go,” Farnsworth writes. “The networks were a marvel. But many of the pipes were made of lead, and the water carried the lead along with it.” Lead poisoning “gradually took its toll, impairing the thought and judgment of many Romans, especially at the top.” Though far from settled history, this theory (like others to do with the fall of Rome) has a new relevance in our time.

We have built networks for the delivery of information — the internet, and especially social media. These networks, too, are a marvel. But they also carry a kind of poison with them. The mind fed from those sources learns to subsist happily on quick reactions, easy certainties, one-liners, and rage. It craves confirmation and resents contradiction. Attention spans collapse; imbecility propagates, then seems normal, then is celebrated.

These words come from Farnsworth’s latest book, The Socratic Method. The titular form of dialogue

means, among other things, asking and receiving questions fearlessly; it means saying what you think, and not getting hot when others say what they think; it means loving the truth and staying humble about whether you know it. In other words, it’s about all the good things that have been vanishing from our culture of discourse.

The Socratic method, as Farnsworth interprets it, involves asking questions that reveal the contradictions in the beliefs of others — and, more importantly, in our own beliefs. While “things said online get tested, or in any event get attacked,” it seldom happens in a properly Socratic manner. “If I were pressed for a one-word opposite of the Socratic method,” Farnsworth writes, “a strong candidate would be Twitter” (once, he needs not add, Donald Trump’s social-media platform of choice).

In the eyes of language-watchers in less than complete thrall to neologism, Twitter can indeed resemble a killing field. It has yet to, and perhaps can never, produce an H. L. Mencken or G. K. Chesterton, though there do exist accounts dedicated to posting their quotations. Yet it was also on Twitter that I recently read an astute diagnosis of at least one condition afflicting public speech and writing today: “rhetorical hyperinflation,” in which messages become ever more heightened and exaggerated as a result of their ever-diminishing ability to provoke an audience response. The result, in the free-for-all of social media or elsewhere, is an atmosphere of disingenuous provocation and keening emotionalism to which we acclimate unconsciously. But perhaps this psychological habituation can be broken by mentally returning to a time before smartphones, before social media, before the internet — millennia before, if necessary.

The Socratic and Stoic enterprises are both often vulgarized, the former reduced to the badgering of strangers with impertinent questions (“trolling,” in internet parlance) and the latter to a disingenuous stifling of one’s own feelings (an aspect of what today’s therapeutic pidgin warning-labels “toxic masculinity”). Yet the original Stoic thinkers like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca the Younger advocated not for the repression but the distrust of emotions, or at least the keeping of a prudent distance from one’s instinctive reactions to the events of life. “Our experience of the world is our own doing, not the world’s doing,” Farnsworth writes, “and the Stoic means to take responsibility for it.” But in 21st-century life, events are few and reactions many; calculatedly outsize expressions of approval, or more effectively disapproval, can pave the way to prominence on social media and elsewhere.

Cries of injustice, real or imagined, have taken some criers far, though hardly in a Stoic-approved manner. “If you want to react to injustice like a Stoic, react like someone who knows it by long experience,” Farnsworth writes, “not someone who has adapted to injustice and no longer cares, but perhaps someone whose life’s work is the correction of it.” Able to “meet injustice with feeling but little emotion,” these sorts of people “are resolute, tough, and active in style,” and “when the injustice afflicts someone else, they are highly compassionate. They have, for these purposes, become natural Stoics. The best lawyers can be like this” — and the rest, presumably, cannot. Though they don’t deal explicitly with the law, these books do contain a few similarly pointed references to the law as currently practiced, and more specifically to the slackened rhetorical and logical acumen of its practitioners.

Law schools, including prestigious law schools like the one Farnsworth heads, are notorious for attracting students possessed of a high “verbal intelligence” but no particular ambitions apart from maintaining an upper-middle-class lifestyle. This feeds the popular perception of the law as a kind of amoral game, in which words used in a misleading or obfuscatory manner secure a desired outcome regardless of the truth of the matter at hand. This, in turn, encourages a broader suspicion of the mastery of language itself, tellingly expressed in some quarters as a distrust of “fancy words.” In this view, “style” is nothing but a more or less deceptive veneer applied atop genuine “substance.” But is this any truer than the excuses we made for the sloppy papers we handed in back in high school: that their writing may not have been perfect, but that they “had good ideas”?

Yet even as teenagers we must have suspected, on some level, that if our ideas had been good, we would have expressed them well — that style, in short, reflects substance. On the scale of fashionability, this notion currently ranks down there with the subject matter of Farnsworth’s books on rhetoric, metaphor, style, the Stoics, and Socrates. It also happens to unite those books into a single project, based upon the not explicitly stated but nevertheless unmistakable premise that language and thought are one and the same. Whether to themselves or others, those ancient philosophers communicated their thoughts with words; words both made those thoughts possible and signaled their quality. The very same holds true today, though few of us allow ourselves to believe it, since it contradicts our intensifying cultural preoccupation with content to the almost total exclusion of form.

Today, English literary prose is acclaimed less often for the strength of its authors’ skill with metonymy, chiasmus, or polyptoton than in response to other choices — articulation of a favored political position, attribution to human types little seen in the established canon, faithful replication of a subcultural communicative tic — not predicated on mastery of the language per se. One can, of course, go back to the study and pull The Ambassadors, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or the King James Version once more from the shelf. But Socrates and the Stoics, those tireless consistency-seekers, would frown on such a retreat from the public sphere, however advanced its state of semiliteracy. If you value virtuosity in English, you should approach the use of language always and everywhere rigorously, and with the sensibility of a connoisseur. In other, less Latinate words, be bothered.


Colin Marshall is at work on a book called The Stateless City: A Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his website, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.