The power of five words
I write for a living. On interesting topics, I hope. Writing is in my DNA. It is a noble pursuit. Mostly creative, and never boring. I prefer the long-form style. More words at my disposal. For tackling hard, knotty problems.
Fewer words work well, too. Brevity helps me with clarity. Economy involves discipline, otherwise lacking. To avoid turgid, elongated prose.
Let’s explore this phenomenon. I have labelled it thus. The power of five words.
Being so concise is hard. Especially in every single sentence. It might become too staccato. The rhythm might feel unnatural. I hope not; but worry.
Hemingway was an acclaimed writer. The master of short sentences. Five words or fewer, oftentimes.
Once, he was eating out. The talk turned to stories. The dinner party all agreed. Short stories were really good.
Hemingway had a big ego. So he made a bet.
He could pen the shortest. He believed he could win. Hemingway thought for a while. And then wrote six words. Scribbled out on a napkin. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
It’s a masterpiece, yes? So short, yet so poignant. And perhaps, as well, intriguing? People wanted to know more. How come, and what happened?
What’s briefer than that? One word less, of course. Time to delve into examples.
Tom Wolfe was another author. He was interviewed about writing. Wolfe praised five word phrases. He argued they rang true. They seemed “the gospel truth.” His point was well made. Express your best point succinctly. And people will believe it.
How often is this true? Newspaper headlines, and literary sentences. And memorable statements throughout history. Whether you’ve ever realized it. Many are just five words.
Then there are the “Webbys”. These awards honor concise excellence. They are published very widely. Including on the ubiquitous internet [http://www.webbyawards.com/].
A Webby winner cannot obfuscate. They must limit their acceptances. Speeches must be five words. Oscar winners play the game. Jerry Seinfeld cheated for his. “Why five words? It doesn't ...”
Other luminaries support this succinctness. Kevin Spacey was one advocate. And Dana Brunetti was another. This is what they said. “The Oscars should do this.”
Support came from The Onion. It’s an internet media company. It made the offer, admiringly. “Anyone want a free Webby?”
NASA got into the act. It issued a media release. On Mars Rover Curiosity’s behalf. “Curiosity kills ignorance. Encourage Science.” What’s not to like there?
“Like cable news, only watchable.” Huffington Post’s humorous acceptance response.
And Tumblr got very excited. It won a fifth Webby. This is how it responded. “F**k yeah. F**k yeah. F**k.” [http://www.webbyawards.com/press/speeches/2015/]. Technically, indisputably, a correct response. Clearly, within the word allowance. But while amusing, not proper.
The past offers more selections. Here’s some of the finest.
“All men are created equal.” The USA’s Declaration of Independence.
“I have a dream today.” Activist, hero, Martin Luther King.
“I am not a crook!” US President Richard Milhous Nixon.
“Headless body in topless bar.” The best newspaper headline, ever. From the New York Post. Front page, April 15, 1983. It has everything, especially intrigue.
“Houston, we have a problem.” Actually, this is a misquote. The Apollo crew was worried. Jack Swigert uttered six words. The sentence ended with “here”. The movie script was shorter. As movie dialogue often is. Tom Hanks said five words. And his phrase has stuck. Not the actual Swigert sentence. That “here”—lost to history.
“Who am I to judge?” Answered Pope Francis in 2013. A reporter asked his opinion. About the Church’s gay priests. But wasn’t he the Pope? Shouldn’t he, couldn’t he, judge? People were astonished and amazed. It was a simple question. But what a Papal answer. Causing a storm of reaction [http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2013/07/29/pope-francis-and-the-power-of-five-words/].
Then there’s the silver screen. Movies are a rich source. Cotton-candy linguistics, most often. But occasionally, hitting the mark.
“Go ahead—make my day.” Sudden Impact, 1983, Clint Eastwood.
“Here’s looking at you, kid.” Casablanca, 1942, timeless Humphrey Bogart.
“There’s no place like home.” The Wizard of Oz, 1939.
“You can’t handle the truth!” A Few Good Men, 1992.
“I'll have what she’s having.” When Harry Met Sally, 1989.
“You had me at ‘hello.’” Tom Cruise, Jerry Maguire, 1996.
“Mein Fürher! I can walk!” Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove, 1964. [http://www.imdb.com/poll/-roq7LQqh3k/].
Or how about my favorite. King’s Row, 1942, a shocker. Ronald Reagan wakes after surgery. The operation’s done by a sadist. He’s had both legs amputated. He looks down in horror. “Where’s the rest of me”?
Literature offers many more examples. Here are some real treats. All in only five words. Revealing more than ordinary writers. Even those using whole paragraphs.
“No man is an island.” John Donne, poet and cleric.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” A couplet, each five words. Sonnet 43, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
“Once upon a midnight dreary.” “Only this and nothing more.” Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven. His first and last sentences.
"I am an invisible man.” Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, novelist.
“Liberty is worth paying for.” Jules Verne, French author, poet. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
“Despair has its own calms.” Bram Stoker, Irish Novelist, Dracula.
“Big Brother is watching you.”–1984, George Orwell, English novelist, 1984.
“Little strokes fell great oaks.” Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack.
“I was cured all right.” Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. It’s also the final line. In Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation.
“It was hope undid them.” Everville, by Clive Barker, 1999.
“Italians live all the way.” Hemingway, to his sister, 1919
The Bible’s great literature, too. I like the old versions. Here are three to ponder.
“To the glory of god.” 1 Corinthians, English Standard Version.
“A sign of the times.” Matthew 16:3, King James Version.
“An eye for an eye.” Matthew 5:38, King James Version.
Shakespeare could fill these pages. His genius shines brightly, always. Shakespearean phrases abound, apposite, resonant. His most famous lines are brief. Just short sentences, in reality. Many are just five words. Some, simply excerpts that stuck.
Calling to us across 500 years. Embedded in our collective psyche. Their precision is breathtakingly powerful.
They colonize our everyday vernacular. Shakespeare was first with these. But we would never know. We’ve forgotten to attribute them. The great man wouldn’t worry. He’d just write some more. Here’s just a tiny sample.
“All the world’s a stage.” From As you like it. My favorite; from Act II.
“Fight till the last gasp.” – From Henry VI, Act I.
“Beware the ides of March.” From Julius Caesar, Act I.
“Nothing will come of nothing.” From King Lear, Act I.
“It was Greek to me.” From Julius Caesar, Act I.
“T’is neither here nor there.” Taken from Othello, Act IV.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Romeo and Juliet, Act II.
“I’ll not budge an inch.” Taming of the Shrew, Prologue.
Words can change everything, decisively. Think not just of Plato. Or historical Homer (not Simpson). There’s Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. Hitler’s 1930s, with Germany rising. “Man on the moon” speech. From many people’s favorite, JFK. Or Tolstoy, Twain, Dickens, Austen.
Let’s ask about this power. What’s its source, and strength? Why are few words impactful? It’s to do with syntax. Brevity is perceived cognitively faster. That’s the way brains work. Fast processers, quick and effortless. Like you reading this, now.
And there’s a historical trend. It’s a march to pithiness. We can trace its development. From convoluted writing to Twitter. Now, there’s 140 character tweets. (Short, amusing, but sometimes vituperative. Watch out for Twitter angst).
Tyler Vigen examined these trends. He’s a thoughtful, enquiring statistician. Historically, sentences are becoming shorter. Here’s Vigen’s graph and chart.
Start with Jane Austen, 1811. A high average sentence length. Sense and Sensibility, 23.3 words. Now fast track to 2005. Averages are falling across time. 11.8 for Harry Potter’s tales. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight: 9.7 words.
Will five words become normalized? It is a fascinating question. It’ll help those demanding succinctness. And those many with ADHD.
A word of warning, though. In literature, context counts too. Five words are not everything. Gary Provost has shown this. He penned this short piece.
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.”
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
See what Gary Provost does. He explains the central problem. Variety adds melody to writing.
Changes to cadence are important. Longer sentences can add energy.
Often, five words are sufficient. But … not everyone realizes this. The world’s awash with words. Everywhere: the internet; in print. Yet five words can inspire. They can differentiate; stand out. As I believe I’ve shown.
So here’s my strong recommendation. Try varying your sentence length. Don’t restrict yourself to five. I’ve tried; it’s overly taxing. You’ll risk monotony, bury emphasis.
That’s my lesson from this. Select your words reflectively; carefully. Choose thoughtfully and be concise. Go short whenever you can. Five or fewer is good. But mix the length up. You might grow in influence.
Care for a role model? A wordsmith to follow closely? Someone with stylistically soaring language? Emulate Churchill, Obama, or Mandela. There’s a goal worth pursuing.
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Vigen, Tyler. Literature statistics. Spurious correlations. Tyletvigen.com.