A letter always has an object – otherwise why write it? But somehow, and particularly in the dictated letter, the object frequently gets lost in the words. A handwritten letter is not so apt to be wordy – it is too much trouble to write. But a man dictating may, especially if he be interrupted by telephone calls, ramble all around what he wants to say and in the end have used two pages for what ought to have been said in three lines.
On the other hand, letters may be so brief as to produce an impression of abrupt discourtesy. It is a rare writer who can say all that need be said in one line and not seem rude.
The single purpose of a letter is to convey thought. That thought may have to do with facts, and the further purpose may be to have the thought produce action. But plainly the action depends solely upon how well the thought is transferred.
Words as used in a letter are vehicles for thought, but every word is not a vehicle for thought, because there is a wide variation in the understanding of words. The average American vocabulary is quite limited, and where an exactly phrased letter might completely convey an exact thought to a person of education, that same letter might be meaningless to a person who understands but few words. Therefore, it is fatal in general letter writing to venture into unusual words or to go much beyond the vocabulary of, say, a grammar school graduate.
There is something of a feeling that letters should be elegant – that if one merely expresses oneself simply and clearly, it is because of some lack of erudition, and that true erudition breaks out in great, sonorous words and involved constructions. There could be no greater mistake. The man who really knows the language will write simply. The man who does not know the language and is affecting something which he thinks is culture has what might be called a sense of linguistic insecurity. Now and again one meets a person who is dreadfully afraid of making a social error. He is afraid of getting hold of the wrong fork or of doing something else that is not done.
Such people labor along frightfully. They have a perfectly vile time of it, but anyone who knows social usage does not hesitate to change. He observes the rules, not because they are rules, but because they are second nature to him, and he shamelessly violates the rules if the occasion seems to warrant it.
It is quite the same with the letter. One should know his ground well enough to do what one likes, bearing in mind that there is no reason for writing a letter unless the objective is clearly defined. Writing a letter is like shooting at a target. The target may be hit by accident, but it is more apt to be hit if careful aim has been taken.
Adapted from The Book of Letters by Mary Owens Crowther, 2008
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