Why Eloquence?

I’ve been called “eloquent” a fair number of times now, enough times for me to wonder why that is. What is it about the way I write and the way I speak that people think is eloquent? When I came to what I think is a reasonable answer, I knew that I wanted to write a little bit about it, because I’m not trying to be eloquent for eloquent’s sake. It’s not about being literarily flashy, about finding puns and precise diction and turns of phrases that take your breath away. To be sure, I enjoy having fun with language, but my goal in using language is so much more than that. Language is the only tool we have to communicate specific thoughts– no amount of facial expressions or gesturing can clearly communicate a complex thought. This is why Romans 10:14 insists that faith in Christ comes through hearing, and hearing through preaching. The only way to clearly communicate thought is through language, whether spoken or written.

I choose to wield that power as effectively as possible. Since language is the way I most clearly communicate with others, I want to make sure that people understand not only what I say, but what I mean. Sometimes the two don’t happen to be the same. I want what I say to be exactly what I mean. So what other people call “eloquence” I call “precision.” I aim to be as exacting with my diction as possible so that what I say is what I mean. (This desire to be direct and to the point presents problems of its own, but that is for a different post.) This means having a large arsenal of words at my disposal so that I can select the one with the best nuance and connotation to fit the sentence. Not every synonym means the same thing, and adverbs add a whole new dimension of specificity–“speak” and “utter” refer to the same action, but the latter carries more weight and may be the better fit for a sentence. “Uttered forcefully” has an even more distinct and vivid image than simply “uttered.” It is this kind of specificity that I enjoy employing in my speech and writing that may lead others to call me eloquent.

I started really developing my language skills in my junior year of high school, when I took my first AP English class. I was fascinated by how authors could select their words carefully to build a certain tone for a short work of fiction, or to make their argument more clear in an essay. Somewhere along the way I started to be more selective about what words I used, hoping that I could make my writing stronger. In writing, as in life, people generally want clarity, and word choice is one way to do that.

I know that word choice isn’t the only thing that contributes to why people perceive me as “eloquent.” A lot of it does have to do with style: I choose not to end sentences with prepositions, I enjoy parenthetical clauses, and so on and so forth. I’ve picked up a lot of stylistic cues from the people I read, which consist of journalists; novelists; history, economics, and politics non-fiction writers; and Christian authors. There are some universal style cues that are apparent in just about all edited works of writing, just as there are universal style cues that exist in speeches. Many of these cues have to do with helping sentences and paragraphs flow together so that the logic moves continuously, without stopping and starting and haphazardly switching to new thoughts. I’ve picked up on these things and adopted the ones I like best in my language use.

Not all of them are for the better; sometimes eloquence is a hindrance. When I speak, I can sometimes be verbose to the point where my attempts at clarity through precision of speech actually muddy my intended meaning. There has been more than one occasion where I have said something I think is clear, only to receive puzzled looks in response. (On one particularly memorable occasion, the person with whom I was speaking paused and said, “Can you say that again, but simpler?”) Effective communication should always take precedence over eloquence. Sometimes, 100 words are needed to described a nuanced idea, and that’s OK. Sometimes, only 10 words are needed. In those moments, it is important to know just how many words are necessary. The general rule is use as many words as you need to, but not more. Extra words should not be there simply because they sound good. It’s something I’m still learning.

In other words, priority should be given to substance over form. The content of an idea should be served by the language used, not the other way around. (Ideas are not simply a vehicle for words.) I love aesthetics: in music, in TV, and in books and speeches. While form may be prized in the arts, in anything where communication is key, substance must reign. Thoughts should not be obscured by a desire to use bigger words or more adjectives. For the Christian, this is a particularly great concern, which is why Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Because of this, he says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

The gospel is the ultimate case where substance should be prioritized. If eloquence is given precedence in the presentation of the gospel, it may be that people “accept” the gospel because of the way it was presented, not on the merits of the gospel itself. The power of the cross is that it offers forgiveness and reconciliation and righteousness to sinners (among many other things). Why would we want to stand in the way of that power by trying to make it sound better? Worse, what does it say about our faith in the power of the gospel when we feel a need to beautify it by the language we use? I’m not saying that this is the case for me, but I’m saying that I need to be aware: in the exposition of truth, truth comes first.

I hope you get a better sense of why I write and speak the way I do. I try not to do it for eloquence’s sake–I really do! For me, it’s about being precise in the way I phrase my thoughts so that someone else can understand them. (There’s a little bit of style and fun in there, too.) There are benefits and precautions to eloquence, just as there is with any other tool. So, why eloquence? Because ultimately, it helps me communicate better, and I’m all for that.

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2 responses to “Why Eloquence?

  1. Hello Elliot,

    Your post concerning the reasons behind clarifying why you choose to use eloquence as a means to get your point across was most inspiring. I too must agree along with many other readers that you have an expansive vocabulary and strong command of the English language. Would you ever be so kind as to impart a few words of advice to a young man such as myself on how to develop my writing skills as well? I enjoy writing, and reading some books, though I should say I need to read more.

    Thanks! God Bless

    Nick

    • Hi, Nick,

      My best advice would be to read widely and listen widely to identify what is helpful, what is clear, and what style of communication you identify with.

      For my reading: I used to be a frequent reader of TIME Magazine until I let my subscription lapse; I still read Yahoo! News just about every day, and that helps me absorb what reporting looks like. I read a few blog posts and longform articles every day (usually via Tim Challies’s “A La Carte” posts). The articles come from The Atlantic, Washington Post, and so on. I read several Christian books a year, but I also enjoy secular non-fiction, too, from economics, history, politics, autobiographies, biographies.

      For listening: I used to listen to a lot of “This American Life” via podcasts. I don’t as much anymore. I do keep up with “Freakonomics” and “Planet Money” via podcasts. I watch an average of a sermon or two every month, and listen to more than that on my iPod as I walk to and from class.

      Obviously, the primary point of all this is for learning and enjoyment. In addition, not only will you absorb their style in subtle and not-as-subtle ways, but if you stop to do some critical analysis every once in a while, you’ll be able to think about what worked and what didn’t. Were sentences poorly phrased and unclear? If so, how could you have improved them? Was there an arc to the narrative or article? (Movies and TV shows can occasionally be helpful for understanding how to tell a story!) Did it propose a thesis and defend it? Did the author write emotionally? logically? How did the author appeal to your emotions or reason? What vocabulary did they use, and are there any words you could add to your arsenal?

      This is only a blog comment, so I can’t write much more here, but I hope that helps! In summary, I’d say, “Read and listen to a lot of things and think about what they do well and what they don’t do well. Imitate what they do well, and improve on what they don’t. Continue to practice communicating.” I hope that’s helpful!

      Elliot

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