Oliver Cross: What I’ve learned from being a columnist

POET TS ELIOT: Breaking the syllable-bank.
POET TS ELIOT: Breaking the syllable-bank.
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I’M in running-down mode. Next week’s column will be my last for the YEP and, before I go I would like to pass on some of the lessons learned during my 15 years of column-writing. It won’t take long.

Very early, a reader wrote me a furious letter about the word ‘nice’, which I had used three or four times in one column. He thought no proper writer should use ‘nice’ even once – there were always better ways to describe things.

I took no notice whatever because I like to write as people speak, and people say nice far more often than they say, say, commendable or pleasantly-situated. Besides, nice, being such a versatile word, is very often the best way to put things and I’ve never found a thesaurus which can add much to it.

I also like, for the same reason, the simple words ‘like’ and ‘thing’, which my old English teachers, probably now deceased, thought needed smartening-up and elongating before being written down.

In this, I take heart from the poetry of Wendy Cope, a great advocate of short words. She shows that complex thoughts and emotions can be expressed without breaking the syllable-bank and would never, as TS Eliot did, have tried to pull in the punters by starting a poem with the word ‘polyphiloprogenitive’, which is here making its first and probably last appearance in the YEP.

I also like the word ‘quite’, even though, as a would-be hard-hitting columnist, I should like some variation of the word ‘very’. Most things, if you remain calm and realistic about them, come into the ‘quite’ rather than the ‘very’ category, obviously excepting inequality and the Middle East. This is why, when politicians or marketers (is there a difference?) say they 
are passionate about something, I tend to assume they’re lying.

The thing I’ve tried to avoid, although it’s an occupational hazard for a columnist, is synthetic, worked-up anger of the type seen in The Daily Mail and other branches of the national press. The view seems to be that intemperate language is a way to enrage, and therefore engage, readers but it’s often dishonest and it stinks.

Let professionally angry columnists boil their heads in a pool of their own hate-filled vomit, I say.

Another thing I’m mildly annoyed about is the ‘elegant variation’, which was once, 
and possibly still is, taught as a rule of good English. The idea was that it was ugly to repeat a word too often, so 
that, for example, you should say ‘dog’ at the first mention, then refer to ‘a canine’ and then, for heaven’s sake, start wittering about ‘man’s best friend’.

This is nonsense; nobody uses elegant variations in speech, so nobody will notice if you avoid elegant variations in writing, as I have done throughout this article.