November 21, 2007
Recently I caught an episode of Friends in which husband and wife Chandler and Monica were trying to adopt a child. Part of the process was to solicit letters of recommendation for them as parents. They asked their friends™ to write letters—all except Joey.
In case you don’t remember the show, Joey is stupid. He’s also fiercely loyal, and so he demands to write a letter of recommendation. Secretly, however, Joey wants to sound smart.
Fortunately for Joey, Ross (the paleontologist) turns him on to the thesaurus in his computer, and Joey proceeds to pick the smartest-sounding equivalent to every word in the first draft of his letter. His heartfelt sentence “They're warm, nice people with big hearts” thus becomes “They're humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”
Back to the drawing board, Joe. Or should I say, “Recede to the diagram embark, Joe.”
Writers are to a thesaurus like Adam and Eve are to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We happily go through our days communicating clearly, comfortably; all along it’s there on the shelf, minding its own business, just a shift-F7 away. The thesaurus goes virtually unnoticed until that crisis moment when our vocabulary fails us, and our innate capacity to articulate what we’re thinking seems like not quite enough. We don’t just want to communicate, we want to sound clever.
Suddenly we hear a hissy whisper somewhere behind us—“Ssseeeee what’ssss in the thessssaurussss . . .”
Thank God for The Elements of Style, the long-canonized style manual crafted by E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, based on his training under English professor William Strunk Jr. White’s writing is undeniably good yet readable at any age, principally because Strunk prioritizes clarity over cleverness. Acknowledging that writers often see the path to cleverness as becoming deliberately obscure, Strunk and White nevertheless holds the banner high: “Since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. . . . Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!”
Thank God for words plainly spoken. Even Jesus is encouraged toward it; his disciples responded to his Upper Room Discourse with “Finally! You’re giving it to us straight, in plain talk” (John 16:29 The Message). I think they would say to all of us in Christian publishing, “Go and do likewise.”
Joey did just that, abandoning the computer and the thesaurus and writing a new letter by hand, complete with pictures. The adoption agency thought the letter was written by a little boy, but Chandler and Monica got their baby. And they all lived happily ever after.
Or, if you’re still tempted by the thesaurus, “They subsisted favorably interminably subsequent to.”