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Clear and Simple As the Truth: Writing Classic Prose Paperback – November 25, 1996

ISBN-13: 978-0691029177 ISBN-10: 0691029172

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 234 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (November 25, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691029172
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691029177
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.5 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #872,618 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

These days, discussions of writing style are generally limited to superficialities such as serial commas and approved abbreviations. It's a pity. While consistency in writing does make for more pleasant reading, no amount of rule-abiding can mask poorly wrought prose. In Clear and Simple As the Truth, Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner argue that "writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills." The first half of their book is a probing examination of classic style, the form popularized by 17th-century French prose writers such as Descartes, Pascal, and Madame de Sévigné and best typified contemporarily by much of the writing in the pre-1985 New Yorker. The authors liken classic style to those theorems in mathematics valued for being "brief, efficient, clear, elegant, and pure." The classic sentence appears effortless, "as if it could have been written in no other way," and while "the writer may speak with a technical mastery not possessed by the reader ... his attitude is always that the reader lacks this mastery only accidentally." While one can hardly hope to distill the essence of classic style into a sentence, Thomas and Turner describe it most succinctly as expression that is "clear and simple as the truth, but no clearer or simpler."

The second half of the book is a "museum" of classic prose, by Thomas Jefferson, Descartes, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Richard Feynman, Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin, and many others, accompanied by commentary from the authors.

From Library Journal

Thomas (humanities, Truman Coll.) and Turner (English, Univ. of Maryland) here consider classic prose style, first carefully distinguishing it from the more modern usage of style, i.e., standard presentation formats. The authors explain how to distinguish classic from other styles, defining it as the presentation of truth, the simplicity and clarity of the prose eliminating the need to promote opinion or to contest an idea aggressively. It's the most genteel of styles, difficult to perfect and thus in decline. The first half of this book is explanatory; the second is a collection of short samples with analysis. The samples reach a bit-e.g., Alan Greenspan's report to Congress is acknowledged obfuscation. Whether they can spark a revival in classic writing is uncertain, but Thomas and Turner serve their topic well. A good choice for the serious stylist and those learning the craft.
Robert C. Moore, Information Svcs., Dupont Merck Pharmaceuticals, North Billerica, Mass.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 7, 2001
Format: Paperback
Contrary to other reviewers, I have found this book wonderfully useful. It was not written as a how-to book, but the style -- indeed the whole philosophy that the truth is both pure and simple -- is refreshing and enticing. While Oscar Wilde didn't believe it, neither did he believe half of what he himself said.
The writing is clear and pure. Classic style does not portend to talk down to the reader, but assumes that she is capable of understanding the concepts presented. It is a style to intelligently present information and ideas for the consumption of the intelligent. And, as the authors rightly point out, there are frequently other styles appropriate for other things. Unlike other books about writing style (the best of which is perhaps Williams' "Style"), this book does not give rules or advice, but simply observes and inspires.
To me, this book is the prosaic equivalent of Edward Tufte's books on visual design (and Robert Bringhurst on typography). I re-read these books regularly, and try to follow their intelligent examples.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Drew M. Loewe on July 28, 2005
Format: Paperback
Turner and Thomas (T&T) offer an overview of that which requires a lifetime of practice: writing as a activity done in a certain manner with the aid of a certain set of enabling conventions. Contrary to the usual surface-level gimmicks, quasi-metaphysical hooey, and self-contradictory cliches that plague the teaching of style, T&T offer an approach that can actually be useful, coherent, and intellectually polished. They make no bones about their so-called classic prose's strengths and weaknesses. At any rate, classic prose in the T&T mode is probably the most useful manner of writing (ONE manner, not the ONLY manner, as T&T make quite clear) that can be taught or learned within the constraints of the composition classroom in an institutional setting.

Those yearning, as I did, for more development of some of the key ideas and a suite of pedagogical applications can turn to T&T's website. Google the title of the book and you will find it.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Robert E. Brown on November 7, 2009
Format: Paperback
After reading several of the comments here, I see that readers who took this book as a weak or failed guide to writing have missed the point. I should know; I acquired this book for Princeton University Press on the basis of reading the introduction and listening to the authors explain why this is NOT a Strunk & White, useful as that may be. They wanted readers to rethink style, not as a tool or an adjunct of writing, but as substance, married with the message. Therefore, they suggest the classic style (with historical underpinnings in French literature) as a way of developing an attitude about what one is saying. The style flows from that. Therefore, they don't present a 10-point plan for improving writing, or a step-by-step how-to manual. Rather, their museum of examples shows how style, classic and not, has worked, or not, in all kinds of writing--from formal to informal. Of course classic style is not for every situation, but it is very effective in achieving its ends. For me, the book isn't just about writing classic prose. It's about thinking of style--any style--as integral to the message.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Mark Forrester on September 27, 2004
Format: Paperback
Thomas and Turner offer a provocative approach to writing style. This is not a manual or reference book that you can consult for simple directions on correcting grammar or streamlining sentences. Instead, the authors examine the fundamental questions that underlie the stylistic choices we make. (For example, what is the nature of truth? what is the relationship between language and the truth?) The book focuses on the style they call "classic prose," but they also describe (and give both good and bad examples of) other prose styles, and they are honest about the shortcomings of classic prose and the situations when other styles are better suited to the purpose of writing. The book would be more useful if there were more direct discussion of how specific surface features of an example relate to the author's philosophical stance, but it is a rewarding and thought-provoking text that may well change how you think about writing.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Fernando Melendez on June 14, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book is strong stuff for those who write during the course of the day (or the week) but for whom writing is not necessarily central to their lives: attorneys, psychologists, historians, politicians, clergymen and teachers, policemen, executives of all sorts and those who write to complain or to praise, to damn, to bid farewell or to congratulate; physicians, pharmacists, students, housewives and grocery clerks; and of course, those who write in order to post to the internet or to present opinions about a book to Amazon dot com.
It is shocking to be told (once more, perhaps) that writing has to do with thinking and not with verbal skills or the domination of a language; those who take pride in drafting elegant prose are often jolted by the notion that the shiny surfaces they so carefully buff have little meaning or usefulness unless they are being supported by clear and precise thoughts from below.
On first reading I found the book disturbing and irritating. Rather than being asked, or being led by the hand towards the utopic writing the title of the book suggests, I found myself being shoved, a little impatiently, into considering what writing is all about. Yet there is nothing in the book that asks you to do things differently when you write, or even to consider your own prose; still, as you move along you become aware of some terrible things you have done in your writing and you promise yourself to mend your ways. But how? The book is certainly not prescriptive in a concrete sense; it is aspirational only. The book does not tell you how to improve your writing, but as you read you sense that it will probably improve nevertheless. While one senses true authoritarianism tucked away somewhere, its presence is not seen, and therefore it is impossible to oppose.
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