Stone the cows

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After listening to Radio 4’s day of gripping readings from the King James Bible on Sunday, I feel like taking a potshot at one of today’s sacred cows: plain English.

Here’s the essayist Joseph Addison, writing three hundred years ago in the Spectator about a visit to the Royal Exchange: “This grand Scene of Business gives me an infinite Variety of solid and substantial Entertainments. As I am a great Lover of Mankind, my Heart naturally overflows with Pleasure at the sight of a prosperous and happy Multitude, insomuch that at many publick Solemnities I canot forbear expressing my Joy with Tears that have stoln down my Cheeks.”

This is a vivid description, conjuring up place, atmosphere and the writer’s emotions. And all those capital letters – did you notice how they give every noun a starring role, and provide visual signposting for easier reading?

But it wouldn’t get past the plain English police. Too many adjectives; lots of long Latinate words; redundant phrases; and a 43-word sentence.

Perhaps we promoters of plain English could relax a little, even in business writing. Or perhaps the great writer Addison is the exception that proves the rule.

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One Response to Stone the cows

  1. Will January 21, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    I’ve got to say, Chris, I completely disagree with you about the capital letters. There’s basically nothing else you can do to a sentence to distract the reader more, especially as it’s hard-coded into modern readers’ brains that a capital letter means a new sentence.
    The archaic spelling is less annoying (apart from ‘canot’ which really looks like a typo) but the hyperbole really gets to me. I can’t imagine anyone bursting into tears when visiting e.g. Canary Wharf. But then I am a cynical young person and much less inclined to suspend my disbelief about such things.

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