The Grammarphobia Blog

The $64,000 question

Q: I was looking through some letters online from people who lived in the 19th century and I noted that they wrote more, shall I say, elegantly than we do. I’ve read collected letters from contemporary people and have not found near the level of style and sophistication that I see exhibited in the letters of people who lived more than a century ago. We tend to use lots of $50 words where a $1 word will do, but the people from the past had a flair for sophisticated prose without seeming pretentious. Why is this?

A: That is the $64,000 question. The fact is that in the 19th century people understood more about sentence structure (they learned grammar in school, for example), read more (and I’m talking about literature), and regarded letter writing as an invaluable skill.

If you have a chance, look at some letters that Civil War soldiers wrote home. Privates with only a few years of formal education wrote more clearly than many college students do now. Simple language became eloquent in their hands.

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