T. Clifford Allbutt on Writing

Rhythms in Prose

I must not tarry, however, to amuse myself and the reader with the sweet rhythms and tones of literary prose, nor even with the felicity of some medical prose, such as of Celsus, Watson, or Paget; I shall be better employed in this warning - that if we seek merely, or even mainly, for chiming words our message will decline; or, like a painted woman, become odious.

When in Pater or Stevenson - not the worst of such sinners by any means - when even in their complexion I see the paint, I am Philistine enough to close the book. Sometimes, even in Virgil or Tennyson, in the lusciousness of form we tremble for the substance. If, as we read, we meditate first not on the bloom on the phrase but on the core of the thought, the art is good; if the phrase is all our charm, the art is decadent.

In the sentence, "I will answer him according to the multitude of his idols," - who, as he takes this message to himself thinks then of the words of it?

Or, to repeat Bright's well-known appeal, "The Angel of Death is abroad through the land; we may almost hear the beating of his wings," who of his hearers thought then of the words? When men began to think, "How far away it would have been had the orator said the flapping of his wings," the spell was dissolving.

This is literature however, and in letters sweetness is a hardly dispensable element; scientific prose is rarely literature. Literature is not merely the art of expression but also the creation of thought and emotion, a blend of strength of understanding with beauty of sound and cadence. Now and again, some great work even of science appears in a form which men will not forget, but ordinarily scientific language has to be a vehicle of correct thinking rather than a monument of thought; it is the sacrifice of the scientific treatise to discharge its burden into the stream of knowledge and then to be itself consigned to the cockloft.

Nevertheless, if, in saying that scientific prose should run pleasingly as well as forcibly and lucidly, I cannot claim for the first quality the importance of the other two, yet I cannot too often repeat that a harmoniously written paper will make its way when the same argument expressed in ugly phrase, when, as Ascham says, "It doth rather trot and hobble than run smoothly," has no appeal.

Bad Prose is Bad Business

Even if the badness be nothing worse than discord. Let the ear then have its way as the phrases are conned; rougher rhythms and inharmonious sounds will drag; as we read we resent something wrong, so that we hesitate, and look back to see where was the jar or the limp.

The cadence of a chief sentence in a recent report ended with "unsolicitedly." And does not this sentence remind us of a looper caterpillar? - "This revelation was the inauguration of a new dispensation, not the termination; also this new dispensation," etc., etc. "Of all I have known he could least hold his own," is not only an untimely assonance but imparts the alien rhythm of verse.

Suppose you have written, "recurrences of this kind are found to abound" - you read it aloud; your ear is set on edge; where was it? You look back, and abate the nuisances. In a passage of otherwise pleasant prose this clause, "one venial fault frustrated the effect," displeased my ear though I suspect the jingle was deliberate.

Sir T. Cliffort Allbutt, Notes on the Composition of Scientific Papers (1923)
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