Consistency and hobgoblins
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 to dig out a clear message or two from business texts too often lacking any consistent elements except cliché and jargon.
I favour consistency in any kind of writing, not just in texts aimed at readers but for words written for speakers too. Take away punctuation, clarity, 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 little-minded by advocating consistency in these ways? Perhaps. But I think that Emerson was referring to consistency as a kind of beast which inhibited exploration, change, creative or even coruscating thoughts and ideas, rather than to elements of style. I, by comparison, am referring to consistency as the sort of beaky, dutiful cousin of style. You can see I'm in two minds one of which is wondering whether the other is a dullard.
Nevertheless, even when you’re trying to keep the reins on a workable narrative flow or style by being consistent, it’s good to bust out occasionally – if you 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 appearing to be completely out of control.
My contention is that if you want to write really well you need to know your art first and it really helps if you know what the rules are before you break them.
Actually most writing, particular in my hobgoblin sphere of work, is not so much devoid of consistency making it unreadable but of content which makes it unpalatable.
Hough, puff, clopperty clip.