Brevity is the soul of wit | Sunday Observer

Brevity is the soul of wit

25 October, 2020

Words are like leaves; and when they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.

- Alexander Pope (1688-1744) English poet

‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ was already a proverb in William Shakespeare’s time. In his ‘Hamlet’ we find the first record of it in literature. Old Polonius is giving King Claudius and Queen Gertrude his opinion of the mental condition of the Queen’s son Hamlet. After saying that time should not be wasted on long preliminaries, he goes on:

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit

And tediousness the limb and outward flourishes,

I will be brief. Your noble is mad.”

It will be seen that ‘wit’ in this context does not mean ‘humour’ but ‘intelligence and understanding’ in the sense of knowing how to pass on information. When we use the expression we mean ‘wit’ in its other sense, which is the power to express oneself in a clever, humorous way. A witty remark or retort is all the better for being short. “How would you like your hair cut, Sir?” asked the talkative hairdresser. “If possible in silence,” replied the customer.

Four requisites

“There are four requisites to a good short story,” explained the English teacher to the class: “They are brevity, a reference to religion, some association with royalty and an illustration of modesty. Now, with the four things in mind, I will give you 30 minutes to write a story.”

Ten minutes later Sandy’s hand went up.

“That’s fine, Sandy,” the teacher complimented her. “And now read your story to the class.”

Sandy read: “My Gawd, said the countess, take your hand off my knee.”

According to Samuel Butler, brevity is not only the soul of wit, but the soul of making oneself agreeable, and of getting on with people and indeed of everything that makes life worth living.

We are living in garrulous days when the jungles of official verbiage threaten to engulf eternity. Editors are good at condensing long reports. An American newspaper condensed an American government specification concerning prospective mousetrap purchases, containing 102,000 words and weighing more than two pounds to a single page. We really do not know how an official managed to write 102,000 words to describe a mousetrap. To write Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift must have used a little more than 102,000 words.


The wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a master of the single page condensation. Once he wrote to his top lieutenants making wartime inquiries: “Pray let me have by this evening, on one sheet of paper … an account of the state of the tank-production program.” The other applauder of brevity was Abraham Lincoln, the 16thPresident of the United States. The fact that he publicly practised what he preached exemplified in his writing of the Gettysburg Address in fewer than 275 words, almost 200 of which were words of one syllables.

Gettysburg Address

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note or long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The celebrated novelist and playwright Keith Waterhouse found Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to be a model of balance between abstract and concrete nouns.

The Americans Strunk and White, in their 20 million copy bestseller “The Elements of Style” distilled an essay on the beauty of brevity into one paragraph: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentence, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”


By brevity we do not mean the extreme terseness of telegram-speak. That can rebound, as a showbiz reporter discovered when he wired the actor Cary Grant, then in his 60s, “How old Cary Grant?” The actor replied, “Old Cary Grant fine.” Nearer home, a young office employee serving in a difficult area sent a telegram to his father: “Wire 100” Father who could not understand the brief message took it to several people to know its meaning. Finally, a retired postmaster told him, “Your son needs Rs 100.”

From the days of the Sumerians, when most writing was done on clay tablets, official verbiage has increased in direct proportion to the facility of its production. English bureaucrats who lived in the pre-Caxton era restrained themselves from writing long letters. However, with the advent of the typewriter, duplicator, photocopier and printer they have no such restraint.

In order to write well, you will have to read eminent authors. Here is a short passage taken from J. Vijayatunga’s Grass for my feet.

Rain in our village

“With us rain is definitely one of the elements we see it and feet it and we hear it and smell it. In our village it has happened now and then that we have had too much rain, but as a rule rain is welcome with us. Now our rain does not just fall as if the sky were the immense spout of an immense watering-can. Everything about our rain is determined and purposeful. Of all our rains the most welcome is the one that comes of an afternoon; a sudden vigorous shower experienced like the whirlwind stride of a mighty earth God on his urgent journey to a distant destination.”

From now onwards pay more attention to the ABC of good writing: A for accuracy, B for brevity and C for clarity.

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