Staying Put
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Living with Style (Rule Four): Have Substance

style “Write with nouns and verbs.” (William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style)

Admittedly, this is one rule I had to think about before making a broader application of it to life in general. Times like this make me wonder if I’m stretching the analogy. But I don’t think so. A good life is surely like good writing, and so why shouldn’t every rule of writing apply?

Good writing is rooted in the particulars of place and time. Nouns and verbs, and not airy adjectives, are what “give to good writing its toughness and color.” Similarly, we all know when we are speaking to someone who has many words, even some that sound quite impressive, but which mean absolutely nothing because they are not rooted in more substantial particulars. You can fill my head with what you plan to do, your ideals, and so on, but until you actually tell me exactly what you will do and when you will do it and how you will do it, it’s fluff, mere prefatory language that leaves me shaking my head and wondering “what was that all about?” Say what you will, but “[t]he adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Nor can grand promises and expressions of hope pull a noncommittal person out of a tight spot.

Having worked in the music business at one time, I know all about this. Label A&R reps are adept at stroking the client, flattering egos hungry for praise, loving every idea, hopeful about all things, sure that this record will launch a career, only to fail to deliver. When they tire of talking, they simply stop returning your call. Many a day I would have preferred being told “We don’t like the record, and we don’t want to sell it.” The Bible does say, after all, to “let your yes be yes and your no be no. . .” (Mt. 5:37a). The simple truth, nouns and verbs, is so much clearer, so much tougher, than all the wasted adjectives.

Sometime, listen to children speak. They use nouns and verbs. They speak plainly. They may offend by their frankness, but they offend plainly, not subtlety. Strunk once said “if you’re going to be obscure, be obscure clearly.”  Similarly, he might have said, “if you are going to offend, offend clearly.” Have substance, in other words. Say what you mean. Make it concrete.

In its often spare sentences, Scripture is a reminder that plain speak is commended.  “Come, follow me.” “Take, eat.”  “Feed my lambs.”  Even, “Come and have breakfast.”  Jesus himself spoke directly and simply, most often with strong nouns and verbs.  When you know who you are and what you are about, your conversation is not cluttered with needless adjectives, endless qualifications.  Would that politicians would learn such directness!

The bottom line:  Have substance.  Speak plainly and directly.  Qualify only when necessary.