My Gloss on Bateson

The English literary scholar F.W. Bateson (1901-1978) edited a journal called Essays in Criticism. In an editorial from 1966, he discussed the quality of writing he and his colleagues expected from contributors:

To be blunt about it, we want every sentence in every article that we print to be in respectable English. And if I am asked to define what our criteria of stylistic respectability are I will probably have to confess that they boil down to ‘Oxford’ English—by which I mean the kind of prose that Matthew Arnold practised supremely well and that is still written, perhaps from the benefit of his example, by a surprising number of members of his University.

He then posed the reasonable question, “What are the characteristics by which an Oxford prose style can be recognised?”

His answer is the best one-sentence description I know of a certain kind of good writing. It isn’t the only kind, of course. But the qualities Bateson enumerated will be helpful, I think, to any writer. I set them down below, with my own glosses, emendations, and bracketed additions.

“A preference for short sentences diversified by the occasional very long one, [as well as a preference for short words diversified by the occasional long one];  a tone that is relaxed and almost [emphasis added] colloquial; [the absence of unintentional word repetition, awkward phrasing, clichés, flat rhythm, and weak sentence-endings (reading aloud, sentence by sentence, can help a writer achieve a level of attentiveness that will guard against these)]; [the inclination and ability to deploy fresh and apt metaphors; a sense of humor;] a large [capacious] vocabulary that enjoys exploiting the different social and etymological levels of words; above all, an insistence on verbal and logical precision.”