The Volokh Conspiracy

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What Did Holmes Know About Language That We Don't?

Still more lessons on good writing from the masters.



I've written a new book about approaches to writing that made the words of Lincoln, Churchill, and others so powerful. Monday's post talked about Lincoln's use of Saxon words to end sentences that start in a more Latinate way. Yesterday's showed how Churchill used an opposite pattern. Today I want to talk about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Holmes was a master of contrast, and he used the same ideas that we've seen Lincoln and Churchill employ to such great effect. He loved giving a Saxon finish to a sentence that started up in the atmosphere. A timely example:

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate. —Holmes, United States v. Schwimmer (1929) (dissenting opinion).

The part of the sentence before the dash is dominated by Latinate words—popular, prejudice, principle, Constitution, imperatively, attachment, principle (again). The part after the dash, and especially the finish, takes a turn toward the simple: 19 words, all but one of which are Saxon. This was a characteristic pattern for Holmes. After working with large words and concepts for a while, he would ground a claim with plain words at the end.

Here is another example of him using the same technique:

If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way. —Holmes, Gitlow v. New York (1925) (dissenting opinion).

From expressed to community, all the significant words are Latinate. After that point, every word is Saxon (except chance, which anyway is simple).

The two passages just shown are among the best-known that Holmes wrote. The ideas they contain have been said elsewhere in many ways. These statements of them owe their fame mostly to their eloquence; the movement between words of different kinds contributes to it. The flow from Latinate to Saxon allows force to be gathered and spent.

Holmes may not have thought much about what he was doing in these cases. He was from a literary family. Movement between poles came naturally to him. But now it's possible for us to learn from the patterns that he probably created by instinct.

As it happens, both of those sentences from Holmes are 41 words long. But he was able to use the same pattern, and to similar effect, in sentences that were shorter.

The degree of civilization which a people has reached, no doubt, is marked by their anxiety to do as they would be done by. —Holmes, The Common Law (1888).

I'll talk some more about these principles, and about Holmes, tomorrow. If this discussion is up your alley, there's more detail in the book.