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Copyright © 2012-2014,2015 by Thomas E. Dickey


Terse?

Synopsis

I have noticed that some people regard my comments as unnecessarily terse (or laconic). For example

In these cases, I was actually not being "terse". However, my readers did not take the trouble to elicit more information on the points where they lacked it. The problem was compounded by their relying upon a single viewpoint (users of a single operating system), ignoring all of the dependencies.

On the other hand, there are some cases where I know that I am being terse. It is a matter of both inclination and training.

Background

To begin with, I dislike the term “laconic” because it sounds like (and some people confuse it with) “sardonic” (both of Greek origin). The more common term “terse” is not necessarily a criticism.

My interest in terseness, as such, dates back to an episode in ninth grade English. Due to scheduling problems (band or other activities), I and a few others had English class at a different time than the other college-bound students. The instructor sized up the situation and moved us across the hall into an unused room. We spent most of the year writing book reports.

However (probably to match some milestone set for the rest of the class), he told us one day that we were to write a paragraph about what we did during the day. I questioned that, asking how long the paragraph should be. He replied "just four sentences."

Still, I objected in principle, since four sentences could hardly encompass what I did during a typical day. So... I wrote a four-sentence paragraph. It had 485 words, using many clauses (grammatically correct, of course). The instructor gave me a “D”, writing on the paper

Brevity is the soul of eloquence

I asked about that, and he said it was an old proverb where he came from (Pennsylvania). I have found it in Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases", by Bartlett Jere Whiting (Harvard, 1977), from which I quote the relevant entry:

B321 Brevity is the soul of eloquence

1804 Brackenridge Modern 365:
Brevity is the soul of eloquence, and amplification the usual fault.
Oxford 84-5; TW 42.

I have kept that in mind, in writing. Later, I took a course in composition. But I was unsatisfied (though the instructor was satisfied). My writing seemed too vague. The way to success seemed to be to say as much as possible with as few words as possible—reporting facts from which the reader could make his own inferences.

For instance, I regarded these as good examples: O. Henry, Robert Heinlein, (most of) John Steinbeck. Regarding Ernest Hemingway, I saw in his work the same problems that I saw in my essays (and commented on this once in a scholarship interview).

Later, as an engineering student I was told to write reports. They should be factual (no opinions whatsoever).

One might think the result would be predictable. It was, provided that the report was written by the group. I generally did that. Told to write individual reports, a trend was apparent.

Reporting on a lab exercise where a wagon ran down a ramp into a wall (a 3-week effort), I produced 29 pages. That may seem a lot, but it was handwritten. My two lab partners produced 48 pages and 65 pages. For 65 pages, the student went to the library and copied formulas into the report.

We worked together on the senior project (a 4-month effort). As editor for the final report, I made a detailed outline which we used to write about the parts with which we were most familiar. In the part written by the student who produced 65 pages, the only grammatically correct phrases were copied from my outline. (He made his career as a physician).

That said, writing more words does not improve the presentation. What counts is identifying the points and paring away unused words. I used that guideline later, when grading lab reports.

A few students disputed this. One wrote 65 pages and insisted that merited an “A” (see above). Responding to my comment “turgid” on one paper, the student argued that his girl friend said that because my written comments were not complete sentences, they were not valid criticism.

In Practice

Sometimes my responses to questions are lengthy (usually not as long as this essay). More often, I will do this:

Here and there, especially in bug reports you may find the resulting one-liners. I may add a few links here, for examples.

My more lengthy responses are when I notice that there are no useful FAQs or other material which can be used to explain things. I use those to help with my FAQs.

I wrote several paragraphs in the Linux console_codes manpage, including this:

The xterm(1) program recognizes all of the DEC Private Mode sequences listed above, but none of the Linux private-mode sequences. For discussion of xterm(1)'s own private-mode sequences, refer to the Xterm Control Sequences document by Edward Moy, Stephen Gildea, and Thomas E. Dickey available with the X distribution. That document, though terse, is much longer than this manual page. For a chronological overview,

http://invisible-island.net/xterm/xterm.log.html

details changes to xterm.