Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Polite and long

Usually we try to trim long and redundant sentences. But there's a purpose for sentence length. The longer and more ornate the sentence, the more "polite" it is. I probably stated that backwards. If the writing task requires politeness (like you are writing a complaint about someone that you need to continue to work with), if you lengthen the sentences, it actually sounds more courteous. So a bit of redundancy can actually help you sort of smooth out the meaning and soften it, I guess.

"I am so sorry to have to bother you with this, Don Corleone, and I know how busy you are, too busy to deal with a minor matter like this. But if you have a bit of time next week, I would love to take you to lunch and discuss that minor matter of your henchman threatening to torch my store. I'm sure it's just a mistake, or perhaps I misinterpreted his meaning. But it would be such a compliment if you would let me treat you to lunch so that we could straighten out this little matter. Can I call you to set up an appointment? There's a lovely little Italian bistro near here, and I'd love to get your opinion on the gnocchi."

That can be edited down to:

"Hey, Corleone! Call off your thug or else!"

But I don't know... I don't think I'd send the Godfather an abrupt ultimatum like that.

Here's a fascinating new sociolinguistic field, the politeness theory.


Jordan said...

Thanks for sharing this! I studied Linguistics in college, so I find this stuff fascinating.

I wonder how much this might tie into gender, also. I've started digging into Deborah Tannen's work. When I did this, I found myself editing my communication based on my audience—specifically gender.

So if it was Nona Corleone, I'd go with the red paragraph (LOL). But if it were something I was sending to a man—or if I were writing an email for my husband—I'd be more direct.

Jami Gold said...


That's a great point about gender probably playing a big role in this as well. I don't use very many adverbs in general, but my male characters (their POV and/or dialogue) use virtually none.

Edittorrent said...

I read that the more dangerous the milieu, the more elaborate the courtesies. So that opening scene of the Godfather, with everyone debasing himself to ask for a favor, was true to life, I guess!

Makes sense. If a rogue word will get you killed...

Sage Ravenwood said...

Intriguing. I think it also speaks on the intellectual aspect.

I had someone once complain about a piece I'd written, he said, guys don't tend to be that wordy. Depends if they have something that needs saying or not. I've noticed the harder they try to get something out in the open, the more wordy they seem to get. (Hugs)Indigo

Edittorrent said...

Huh. Interesting. I wonder if forced short forms like twitter and texting will begin to shift our approach to polite speech.


Elizabeth Briggs said...

As I tell my English husband all the time, this is why the British tend to be more wordy!