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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles

What Causes Pomposity in Poor Writing?

What causes pomposity in writing? Or, better still, what causes people to get pompous when they write?

Two things mostly:

1. An error in judgment; and
2. an almost maniacal madness for using big words.

Error No. 1: When you write pompously, you judge wrongly that readers appreciate elegant writing; that they expect you as an educated person to sound elegant and impressive and will think you undignified if you don't. This may have been true years ago, when 5 percent of the people had social position and educational status and the other 95 percent had neither. But that isn't the way things are anymore and readers don't like you to write like they were.

In short, parading elegant words is no longer a suitable ceremony for the educated to use to IMPRESS the less educated.

Nor was this puffed up elegance appreciated in Europe even in the roughness of the fifth century when semi-Christianized barbarian hordes roamed a rude world with rock and ax. Even then, a Latinized Frankish bishop was warning his priests about pomposity:

Be neither ornate nor flowery in your speech ... or the educated will think you a boor and you will fail to impress the peasants.

As for Error No. 2—the maniacal madness for big words—H. W. Fowler says that those writers who run to long words are mainly the unskillful and tasteless; they confuse pomposity with dignity, flaccidity with ease, and bulk with force.

Big words are not always and necessarily bad. They are bad when the writer is obsessed with them, when he uses them for their own sake, when he uses them to the exclusion of plain words. Then they are pompous.

Of course there's one way of killing this big word bug, and that's to stop talking like a mechanical nobleman who has been stuffed to overflowing with impressive, exotic words, and start talking like the genuine, natural human being you are. It's that simple.

Another writing evil caused by big word pomposity is the evil of falling into error. The more pompous and profound we get, the more we're apt to make mistakes. This pops up in our next sample from a monthly progress report by a state fire officer:

FIRE REPORT: Heavy rains throughout most of the State have given an optimistic outlook for lessened fire danger for the rest of the season. How¬ever, an abundance of lightning maintains a certain amount of hazard in isolated areas that have not received an excessive amount of rain. We were pleased to have been able to help Nevada with the suppression of their conflagration.

The curious thing about this stilted, stuffy, unnatural, puffed up and pompous piece is that the fire officer who wrote it is an educated, dignified, uncomplicated, easy-going, unpretentious, plain-talking fellow, who wouldn't be caught dead talking like he writes.

But what happened to him is the same thing that happens to many of us when we sit in front of our computers. We become somebody else—and usually that somebody else is an aristocratic dandy of some past century. We just never really look at ourselves as we actually appear in print. If we did, we'd either quit writing or we'd quit writing like we do.

Now let's see how our fog-fighting secretary wrote the pomposity out of the fire officer's memo:

Fire readings are down throughout most of the State. But a few rain-skipped areas are dry, and lightning is a hazard there. We are glad we could send some of our people to help Nevada put out their recent range fire.

The important point here is NOT that our plain English writer cut down from 60 pompous words to 42 rather simple ones; mere word-cutting is never an end in itself; but that she did make the item simple, natural, and accurate.

© LousyWriter.com

PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles