Elegant English

In The Dimwit’s Dictionary, Robert Hartwell Fiske describes elegant English as that which is “expressed with music as well as meaning, with style as well as substance.” He goes on to say that “It is time we aspire to becoming who we were meant to be. It is time to aspire to expressing ourselves well. Elegant English is grammatically correct English, it is uncommon or forgotten English. In all instances, elegant English is English rarely hear, English seldom spoken.”

Everyday English uses such constructions as “It is me,” “okay,” “the fact that,” “I don’t think so.” The corresponding elegant constructions are “It is I,” “as you wish,” “that,” and “I think not.” Everyday English commonly uses “how come?” where elegant English uses “how is it that?”

MusicEven though I don’t like what Fiske calls “quack equations,” I still find myself using them on occasion. Quack equation are expressions such as “a deal is a deal,” “a rule is a rule,” “what’s right is right.” He says such quack equations “readily explain behavior that the dimwitted otherwise find inexplicable, and justify attitudes they otherwise find unjustifiable.”

Occasionally such phrases are inescapable. They are a way of acknowledging that some events are inexplicable, for example: it is what it is. No matter how we try to find the meaning in inexplicable happenings, sometimes the meaning eludes us. Sometimes there is no explanation besides “it is what it is.”

(I have a hunch he would have despaired at the definitions of elegant and elegance in my dictionary. Elegant is defined as “marked by elegance,” and elegance is defined as “something that is elegant.”)

He also rails against plebian sentiments such as “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” “I just work here,” “that’s life,” or “you think too much.” “That’s nice” is particularly plebian because it is used to dismiss what a person has said, though it suggests interest. He asserts that plebian sentiments reflect the views and values of the least thoughtful among us, that they blunt our understanding and quash our creativity, and “actually shield us from our thoughts and feelings, from any profound sense of ourselves. People who use these expressions have not become who they were meant to be.”

I consider myself well spoken. I don’t use a lot of colloquialisms or bad grammar, but even I have found my English slipping way past elegant into banal. In my case, it started out as protective coloring. I had a big vocabulary when I was young, though I didn’t always know how to pronounce the words. (I still remember the laughter that greeted me many years ago when I said something was mackaber instead of macabre.) But still, if I wish to lead a more elegant life, and aspire to be who I am meant to be, I should relearn how to speak (and write) more elegantly.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.