The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Holmes and the Art of the Skewer

One more lesson on good writing from the masters.



I've been talking this week about principles of good writing that can be learned from Lincoln, Churchill, Holmes, and others whose words have stood the test of time. The ideas are drawn from this new book.

Yesterday's post showed how Oliver Wendell Holmes used some of the same methods Lincoln did to create memorable sentences. Holmes had an instinct for contrasts. Polarities that ran throughout his writings gave them great force.

Holmes often would say something twice: once in Latinate words, then in words that are Saxon and also highly visual, often because they use a metaphor. In these next examples we see the Saxon finish that has now become familiar, but other kinds of action, too:

I don't believe in the infinite importance of man—I see no reason to believe that a shudder could go through the sky if the whole ant heap were kerosened. —Holmes, letter to Harold Laski (1921).

No doubt behind these legal rights is the fighting will of the subject to maintain them, and the spread of his emotions to the general rules by which they are maintained; but that does not seem to me the same thing as the supposed a priori discernment of a duty or the assertion of a preexisting right. A dog will fight for his bone. —Holmes, Natural Law (1918).

Both examples end with a run of Saxon words that stand out in contrast to the Latinate flavor of what came before. They also end in animal metaphors, for which Holmes had a deft touch. And in both cases the simple, visual clincher at the end is really a restatement of what he had just said differently. In effect he makes his claim twice, in two languages: once for the head, once for the gut. The second example shows how this can be done in separate sentences.

Those passages also show something else: how the flow of the diction can follow the sense of the words. The higher and more pompous idea is put in words that came into English from Latin (a priori discernment, infinite importance). The hard truth that follows is put mostly in older and simpler words (dog, fight, bone, shudder, sky, ant, heap); kerosene is from Greek, but it now has some of the easy visual qualities of a Saxon word.

The point: Holmes liked to skewer pompous claims. He also liked to blow up linguistic balloons and then pop them. The two habits went together.

Tomorrow I'll make a few more general remarks about other kinds of contrasts. In the meantime, you can find more about all these themes in the book from which these posts are drawn.