Hobgoblins and hobby horses
Here’s a thought: if as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines” then how do we measure “foolish” and when does one step over the line into little-mindedness?
I’ve often argued that consistency in grammar, punctuation, capitalisation, spelling and so on makes writing of any kind more readable. (Content helps too, of course.) I think this is partly because I’ve slaved for years attempting to dig out a clear message or two from business prose too often lacking in any consistent element except cliché.
I favour consistency in all writing, not just in texts aimed at readers but for words written for speakers too. Take away consistent punctuation, clarity of thought, balance in sentence length, a bit of rhythm to allow ideas to make links and breaths to be taken, and you’ll find the speech is unreadable, unspeakable and generally insufferable. Hough! Hough! Clipperty clop! I’m now a little statesman on his hobbyhorse.
Am I being little-minded by advocating consistency in these ways? Perhaps. But in mild self-defence I believe that Emerson is referring to consistency as a kind of beast which inhibits exploration, change, creative or even coruscating thoughts and ideas, rather than referring to an element of style. Whereas I am offering consistency as the useful and possibly dutiful cousin of style.
But I’m still a bit piqued by the notion of being a bit of a pedantic prat. And, even when I’m trying to put together some kind of consistent narrative flow or style, I like the idea of busting out occasionally – if I can get away with it. It’s like the clown on skis. He knows his art so well that he can do astonishing acrobatics while looking completely out of control.
My contention is that we should truly know our art as writers too – we must learn and apply the rules before we break them successfully.
Actually most writing, particularly in my hobgoblin sphere of work, is not so much devoid of consistency making it unreadable but of content making it unpalatable. Hough, puff, clopperty clip.