Saturday, July 25, 2015

Euphony and the problem of authenticity

Of the Writing Virtues (Clarity, Concision, and Euphony), Euphony is the odd-man out. You might even wonder why it belongs in this august group: is it not just a means rather than an end? At first, only a vague intuition tells us that Euphony is worthy of independent note, as Euphony will be misconstrued and underrated if its attribution is based on word sounds. The reality is very different. What sounds good to us expresses our personal vision of stylistic excellence, which is to say, we perceive the quality of style— including our own style—aurally. This isn’t to say that writers should write strictly according to what sounds good. This would be a mistake: it would even preclude applying the writing principles advocated—indeed, applying the principle that sound serves as a guide to style. The point is rather that writers inevitably use Euphony as a guide to style, and understanding that phenomenon might help correct biases which accord insufficient or excessive weight to it.

Euphony’s use as a guide to style is subject to two important limitations. First, there will be tension between considered judgment and Euphony, since the Euphonic sense is educable—and is educated—by that tension. Second, the writer must avoid the common confusions between Euphony and Fluency. The first caveat should be plainly clear, as ignoring it would obviate any purpose for, say, this blog. The second limitation is more interesting, since the over-valuation of fluency also distorts the common understanding of Clarity. Each of these confusions exaggerate the weight of fluency—at the expense of cohesion and omission, in the case of Clarity, or in the case of Euphony, at the expense of what might be termed apt novelty.

Two arguments confirm introspection for the commanding importance of Euphony in stylistic discretion: the more effective style sounds better, but only to a writer with a developed sense of Euphony. One argument is that style requires balancing various Virtues and skills, yet we are able to make these choices for the most part pre-attentively. This rapid comparison would be facilitated by a common measure, and this corresponds to the introspection that what sounds best usually is. The other argument is that the central role of Euphony can help explain a mystery that previously vexed us: writer’s voice. What style “sounds good" (paralleling which words sound good) will be somewhat idiosyncratic. We might say that authenticity with regard to style is writing that sounds good to the particular writer. This isn’t a preference for sound as such but for the sound of a style. An example is style's most conspicuous feature, sentence length. To some of us, Hemingway sounds choppy.