Omit Needless Fossil Poetry

Chasing down a famous quotation today, I came across a volume in the College of Dentistry Library of the University of California, San Francisco, generously made available by Google Books. The publication is the 1896 yearly digest of Items of Interest, by The Dental Independent, which describes itself as “a monthly record of dental literature”. The magazine goes well beyond its billing, combining items of general interest such as “Cheerfulness”, “Popular Fallacies”, “Women as Bread Winners”, and “Why the Compass Points North”, with rather more specialist preoccupations, such as “Aching Teeth” (6 articles in 1896), “Dental Colleges”, “Dentistry in Australia”, and “Teeth During Pregnancy”.

Anyway, the famous quotation I was double checking turned up first in Google Books in Items of Interest, in an article listed in the table of contents among four other pieces of interest to dentists that year concerning “Words”. It’s from Richard Chenevix Trench’s On The Study of Words, first published in 1851 and in already in its twentieth edition in 1896. A little late for America’s dentists to be taking notice of Trench, you might think. But the real object is not to further disseminate Trench’s ideas, but rather to make a point about strong, concise writing by showing up England’s best known philologist.

The article, reproducing Trench’s title, puts his lecture in a left-hand column, with the editors’ improved version on the right-hand side, leaving white space gaping where needless words have been removed. Thus Trench’s “diffuse style” is exposed. The introduction notes, “We are taught in philology that any superfluous word in a sentence weakens; and yet, we find in this small extract 325 redundant words … see if you do not think [Trench’s ideas] better clothed in a less display of superfluity”:


Well, we might take this as an example of the nineteenth century American fashion for espousing stylistic precepts, an offshoot, probably, of the spelling and grammar craze inaugurated by Noah Webster’s 1783 Speller. Spelling, grammar, vocabulary and writing style is what the learned dentist means by ‘philology’, which might otherwise seem an odd branch of learning to invoke (on etymological grounds if nothing else) in support of lexical stinginess. It is not, after all, a ‘love of absolutely necessary words’.

It is this sort of stylistic evangelism that would culminate in that unkillable zombie of the American schoolroom, William Strunk and E. B. White’s 1919 [1959] handbook, The Elements of Style. [Feeling  defensive about your S&W-inculcated vigilance for qualifiers and the passive voice? See Pullum, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice“]. In that still-walking work, the premise advocated by the 1896 dentist-philologer appeared as the thirteenth admonition, “Omit Needless Words”, which S&W elaborated with dozens of words, including these:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Typical of the more radical disciples of Strunkian doctrine is this guy, who says of this passage: “Memorize the above passage from the book. I literally want you to memorize this passage. … Write in on a flash card and keep it on you and read it over and over until you memorize it.’ Omit needless words indeed.

I’ll leave it to others, if they so wish, to decide which of Trench’s words  were so unnecessary as to have blighted ideas which would otherwise have qualified as items of interest, or whether the concise version is much of an improvement. I myself am contented by the image of America’s dentists reviewing with approval the great number of cleanly extracted words and the white space left behind.

The real fun of the piece in Items of Interest, however, is in Trench’s subject, which is an elaboration of R. W. Emerson’s statement that words are “fossil poetry”, because they are a record of an original metaphor between some material appearance and an abstract thought. Trench thought this a good idea, but he himself wished to go farther, to say that words are not only fossil poetry, but fossil ethics, and fossil history.

But according to Items of Interest, Trench expressed this idea with altogether too many fossil poems, fossil ethicses, and fossil histories, as the edits show:



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