Words that are merely “little balloons of bright sound”

Although I love good writing and think that it is better to learn by studying a model than from a set of explicit rules, I’m not very good at taking a model and extracting a useful lesson from it—mostly I’m left in wondering admiration.

So it’s a precious thing to find a well-written passage that not only spells out something about good writing but demonstrates the way out of the problem it identifies. A good place to go in search of such passages is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s one example I found quoted in a recent article:

The world of criticism has a modest pouch of special words (luminous, taut), whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning over the wall. Of these critical words, Wolcott Gibbs once wrote: ‘…they are detached from the language and inflated like little balloons.’ The young writer should learn to spot them — words that at first glance seem freighted with delicious meaning but that soon burst in air, leaving nothing but a memory of bright sound.

What I like about this passage is that it is itself filled with delicious, bright-sounding words, but every one of those words is carefully placed and doing important work.

The article itself is worth reading, a discussion of book reviews and the little balloons of bright sound that regularly appear in them. I found it linked on Alan Jacobs’s Text Patterns blog, a reliable source of well written commentary.


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