Rewriting for Style

2. Latinate Diction

Believe you have the choice.

This is the hardest step with this aspect of style, because few people have ever heard of Latinate diction, but it's perhaps the stylistic choice that packs the biggest wallop for readers.

One of the best ways to sensitize yourself to the difference between abstract and concrete diction is to understand that many abstract words are examples of what is known as Latinate Diction. This term describes words in English that derive from Latin roots, words with such endings as -tion, -ive, -ity, -ate, and -ent. Taken to an extreme, Latinate diction can leave your meaning vague and your readers confused. This is not because there is something dubious about words that come into English from Latin. A large percentage of English words have Latin or Greek roots, words like pentagon (Greek for five sides), anarchy (Latin for without order), and automobile (Latin for self-moving).

The problem with Latinate diction lies in the way it is sometimes used. Latin endings such as -tion make it too easy for writers to construct sentences made up of a high percentage of vague nouns, as in the following example.

The examination of different perspectives on the representations of the sociopolitical anarchy in media coverage of revolutions can be revelatory of the invisible biases that afflict television news.

This sentence actually makes sense, but the demands it makes upon readers will surely drive off most of them before they have gotten through it. Reducing the amount of Latinate diction can make it more readable.

Because we tend to believe what we see, the political biases that afflict television news coverage of revolutions are largely invisible. We can begin to see these biases when we focus on how the medium reports events, studying the kinds of footage used, for example, or finding facts from other sources that the news has left out.

Although the preceding revision retains a lot of Latinate words, it provides a ballast of concrete, sensory details that allows readers to follow the idea. It's fine to use Latinate diction; just don't make it the sole staple of your verbal diet.

To understand the choice you've been making unconsciously all your life, a brief history lesson: English is a Germanic language, which means it is descended from an ancient parent language spoken in Germany perhaps six thousand years ago. As a result, the ancient root of the vocabulary—words like good, foot, dirt, water, mother, and eat—are all Germanic and have been in the language from the beginning. These are the words that you learned first when you were growing up, the words you use most often and know the best. Centuries after that Germanic beginning, mostly between 1150 and 1800, English borrowed a lot of words from French and Latin. The French words were brought into English largely by contact with French high culture, so the French vocabulary in English tends to feel arty or genteel: banquet, dine, fashion, genteel, cuisine, honor, virtue, and chef. Our Latin vocabulary was brought into English by scholars and scientists, who were all reading books in Latin and trying to reform the English vocabulary so it would be as much like what they saw there as possible, so it feels scholarly, scientific, and clinical: condition, instinctual, relativity, procedure, effective, factor, element, consideration, criterion, and process.

You can say anything in any one of these three vocabularies, Germanic, French, or Latinate. Again, the way to prove this to yourself is to take passages using one of them and rewrite them in another:

I saw the guy who I think did it leave the place with two other white guys—I don't know who they were.
The alleged perpetrator was observed to exit the premises in the company of two unidentified male Caucasian individuals.
Violation of any of these statutes will result in immediate and permanent expulsion.
If you break any of these rules, we'll kick you out.

Understand the effect of your choices.

The effect of using French vocabulary turns out to be so minimal that we'll ignore it. But the effect of Latinate and Germanic vocabulary hits readers like a sledge hammer. Since we all learn Germanic vocabulary before we're seven years old, it remains associated with "the basics." Germanic writing feels earthy, strong, honest, childlike, male, "real"—all the things we said about short sentences, in fact. Since we learn our Latinate vocabulary primarily in school, and especially in college, it always feels professorial, intellectual, professionally competent, and fake. In addition, Latinate words are simply harder for us to understand, since we learn them later in life, so the more of them you use the harder a reader will have to work to understand you. If we use enough Latinate words, the difficulty of the style out-shouts the content, the same way a wild bow tie distracts us from what someone is saying, and readers end up dazzled and baffled.

This is a very dangerous thing and an omnipresent cancer in our society. The disease goes by many names: BS, bureaucratic English, bureaucratese, political English, Engfish, Pentagonese. Not surprisingly, the people with the most to hide and the greatest need to impress—the government, the military, advertising, the police, politicians, and all bureaucracies, including your college—use it the most.

And we all fall for it. Here's a highly Latinate passage. See how impressed you are by it, and how unimpressive its Germanic revision is?

Studies of a significant number of choice situations in the main conclude that when faced with an alternative between an object (either material or abstract) of lesser value and a high degree of certainty of attainment and an object of greater value and a low degree of certainty of attainment, the certainty of the former object renders the object a greater value than the potentially obtainable object. In fact, it has been shown that in cases where the value of the potentially obtainable object exceeded the value of the certainly obtainable object by a factor of two, the uncertainty of attainment still rendered the less valuable object the more profitable choice.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

So in the case of this stylistic feature, we can talk about how much is too much. The typical Latinate level of American newspapers is 20%, which means one of every five words on the page is from Latin. Significantly less—10% or lower—will feel earthy or simple when we read it. Significantly more—30% or higher—will feel intellectually impressive and begin to impair our ability to understand. Forty percent Latinity (four of every ten words) is incomprehensible to most of us. So unless you're engaged in an intentional snow job, keep your Latinate level below 30%. But don't strive for a percentile below 10% either, unless you want to sound like a child or a Hollywood Indian.

Rawlins, Jack, ed. The Writer's Way. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. 5th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2008. Print.