Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Farnsworth on Balancing Saxon and Latinate Words in Your Writing

This post focuses on the value of using an apt mix of Saxon and Latinate words in your writing.  It draws on a book by Ward Farnsworth called Farnsworth’s Classical English Style.  English has a wonderfully polyglot heritage to draw upon — starting with an ancient form of German brought by early Saxon invaders, then Danish brought by Vikings, and finally French brought by the last set of conquerors

The primary poles of the language remain the Saxon and the Latinate, and this polarity provides a rich array of possibilities for authors seeking to enhance the effectiveness of their writing.  The two forms of words have strikingly different characteristics, which the skilled writer can use to considerable effect.

Farnsworth Cover

You don’t need the Oxford English Dictionary to tell you distinguish the two kinds of words from each other.  Here’s how Farnsworth puts it:

Saxon words are shorter, and in their simplest forms they usually consist of just one syllable. Latinate words usually have a root of two or three syllables, and then can be lengthened further and turned into other parts of speech.

The simplest guide, useful often but not always, is this: if a word ends with -tion, or if it could be made into a similar word that does, then it almost always is derived from Latin. Same if it easily takes other suffixes that turn it into a longish word.

A key difference is the sound:

Saxon words tend to sound different from Latinate words in ways distantly related to the sounds of the modern German and French languages. Many Saxon words have hard sounds like ck or the hard g. Latinate words are usually softer and more mellifluous.

Another central difference is between high and low speech, formal and informal speech.

When French arrived in England it was the language of the conqueror and the new nobility. A thousand years later, words from French still connote a certain fanciness and distance from the gritty, and Saxon words still seem plainer, less formal, and closer to the earth. If you want to talk clinically about something distasteful, you use the Latinate word for it – the one derived from old French: terminate or execute (Latinate) instead of kill (Saxon).

As the conceptual life of English speakers became more sophisticated, they needed new words to talk about what they were thinking. They usually made them out of French or more directly from Latin or Greek. That is part of why people who teach at universities find it hard to prefer Saxon words when they have their conversations. Most of them would probably write better if they did use more Saxon words, but there are lots of tempting Latinate words that seem designed for academic purposes, because they were. They allow a kind of precision (or facilitate a kind of jargon) that Saxon words cannot match.

As Farnsworth notes, this high-low difference offers both an opportunity and a challenge for academics.  We need Latinate words in order to achieve the desired precision and complexity of argument and to deal with abstraction — all central components of academic discourse.  But we also may lean toward the Latinate simply because it makes us sound and feel more professional, unsullied by common speech.  This not only puts off the nonacademic reader but also clouds clarity and reduces impact for all readers.

Yet another distinction in these types of words is between the visual and the conceptual, the felt and the thought.

Saxon words tend to be easier to picture than the Latinate kind, most of which need a minor moment of translation before they appear in the mind’s eye. Compare light (Saxon) and illumination (Latinate), bodily (Saxon) and corporeal (Latinate), burn (Saxon) and incinerate (Latinate). The difference between visual and conceptual is related to the ways that these kinds of words can speak to the different capacities of an audience. Latinate words tend to create distance from what they describe. They invite thought but not feeling. Saxon words are more visceral. They take a shorter path to the heart.

Here he lays out a central principle of good writing in English.

For most people most of the time, attractive English isn’t the art of choosing beautiful words. It is the art of arranging humble words beautifully.

Here’s an example from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

He provides some other vivid examples from that wellspring of good writing, the King James Bible.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. Gen. 1:3 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Matt. 7:7 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13 Every word of those passages is Saxon. The gravity of their meaning matches the simplicity of their wording.

Perhaps more precisely, the sense of weight is increased by the contrast between the size of the meanings and the size of the words. A big thing has been pressed into a small container. The result is a type of tension. It gets released in the mind of the reader.

I love the way he captures the dynamics of powerful writing — creating a “tension” that “gets released in the mind of the reader.”

One way the writer uses the difference in character of the two kinds of words is by deploying them at different places within the same sentence:  starting Latinate and ending Saxon, or the other way around.  Consider what happens when you use the first approach.

Starting with Latinate words creates a sense of height and abstraction. Ending with plain language brings the sentence onto land. The simplicity of the finish can also lend it a conclusive ring. And the longer words give the shorter ones a power, by force of contrast, that the shorter ones would not have had alone.

Lincoln is well-known for his love of simple language, but he was also at home with Latinate words and mixed the two types to strong effect. He especially liked to circle with larger words early in a sentence and then finish it simply. The pattern allowed him to offer intellectual or idealistic substance and then tie it to a stake in the dirt.

Here’s an example, from a letter he wrote about the Emancipation Proclamation:

But the proclamation, as law, either is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid it needs no retraction. If it is valid it cannot be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought to life.

An example from Winston Churchill:

They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory – gone with the wind!

And another from an opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  The setup is Latinate, the punchline is Saxon.

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Frederick Douglass:

Inaction is followed by stagnation. Stagnation is followed by pestilence and pestilence is followed by death.

But you can also reverse the direction to good effect, starting Saxon and ending Latinate.

A frequent product of this pattern is a sense of compression released. Moving from Saxon to Latinate words makes the first part of a sentence feel compact, the rest expansive. The last part thus gains a kind of push.

The way of the Lord is strength to the upright: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity. Prov. 10:29 In that last case the good and the strong are described in simple words. The long words are reserved for the villains. 

How great are his signs! and how mighty are his wonders! his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation. Dan. 4:3 These sentences go from a tight start to a finish that flows freely and gains in height. The result can be a feeling of increasing grandeur, like passing from a low ceiling into a room with a higher one.

Lincoln again:

I insist that if there is any thing which it is the duty of the whole people to never entrust to any hands but their own, that thing is the preservation and perpetuity of their own liberties and institutions.

And Churchill:

You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

Try creating and releasing tension in your own sentences through a judicious mix of Saxon and Latinate words.