short review of William Hazlitt`s “On Familiar Style”

suyam By suyam, 8th Jun 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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William Hazlitt advocates his views on the best way of writing familiar style. He illustrates his points with a lot of examples from his contemporary prose writers. . While writing familiar style, Hazlitt advises the authors what to do and what not to be done. He started using certain techniques such as ‘descriptive diction/imagery”, “parallel structure” and “antithesis “as a methodology for writing a familiar style, which gives the reader the comfort of reading his essay with interest

How to Write with Good Diction to Develop Style? A short review of William Hazlitt`s “On Familiar Style”

How to Write with Good Diction to Develop Style?
A short review of William Hazlitt`s
“On Familiar Style”

William Hazlitt is one of the most prolific English prose writers of the romantic period of English Literature. He is well remembered for his humanistic essays and literary criticism. He is a grammarian and philosopher. His essay “On Familiar Style” is one of his master pieces that appeared in “Table Talk”, a collection of essays of Hazlitt.

Hazlitt makes out his point that how an author should convey his ideas in a manner that is comprehensible to the reader in clear terms. According to him, a familiar style uses the best words in common use and the true idiom of the language and rejects both meaningless and pompous words.

Let us take an example. An author wants to describe a situation such as- “the man falls down”. This is clearly a familiar style of writing and the reader understands the contents easily. In case the author choses to describe the same situation in a pompous and archaic manner, with high sounding words, it would be as under:
“The man changes his position from perpendicularity to horizontality”
The person who reads the above is perplexed to comprehend what is conveyed in the sentence. The sentence throws much weight on the words rather than the situation to the reader. This is not considered to be a familiar style of writing.

According to Hazlitt, the contents are to be explained in simple, clear and dignified words. It should neither be high sounding nor flamboyant. Dr Johnson, an English writer, is very fond of using indiscriminate long words from Latin with English terminations. He uses tall and opaque words taken from “the first row of rubric”. “Rubric” means the portions of a prayer book, wherein the first letter or first word of each chapter is printed in red ink. Dr.Johnson choses the first big word that comes to his mind. Such words are obscure and the readers cannot comprehend the meaning easily. Hence Dr. Johnson`s style of writing displeases Hazlitt.

However, Hazlitt makes an exception to Charles Lamb, who revels in rare and archaic words. Lamb however manages, somehow, to use archaic phrases and yet remain interesting. He takes old writers like Browne and Fuller, as his role model, borrows their phrases and following their way of writing. But his ideas are not out of date. They are, indeed, startlingly original. It looks, as if Lamb hides the pungency of his ideas behind the mask of a mannered style. The models of Lamb seem to help in making the dull reader grasp Lamb`s contents of his writing.

The writer of a plain style must also give up the slang and cant. Words must not be giving new meanings. Expressions known only to small groups are not suitable for a familiar style. It is also not advisable to coin new words. According to Hazlitt, coining new words is a serious crime, as counterfeiting coins/currency; he adds that it is nothing but counterfeiting King`s English. He draws the attention to an important similarity between coins/currency and words. The King`s stamp and acceptance by the people are required for the coins/currency. Similar acceptance and “recognized standards” are required for words too. Hence the expression “King`s English” corresponding to “King`s coinage”,

As an example of a slang phrase, Hazlitt mentions: “to cut an acquaintance”. It means: “to ignore or deliberately refuse to recognize a person known to one”. He says that he would not use the phrase “to cut” in the sense, without putting in italics and such an expression is not a standard English and should be understood in a peculiar way.
In fact, Hazlitt has adopted certain techniques such as “descriptive imagery”, ”parallel structure” and “antithesis” in his essays, in order to make his prose very simple and readable with comforts. This would illustrate to the reader that a specific word choice is the best way to express, what he intends to convey precisely to the readers, by way of a familiar style.

Hazlitt begins his essay with a sentence that has parallel structure, since he wants to stress his point that words used, when writing a familiar style, must be selected carefully to prove that familiar style is not just throwing words on the page, as many people believes.
“It is not the first word that offers, but the best word in common use; it is not to throw words together in any combination we please but to follow and avail ourselves of the true idiom of the language”-parallel structure used by Hazlitt.

He also uses antithesis in this sentence by saying “It is not to take the first word that offers but the best words in common use”..

Hazlitt uses the words such as “vulgar” and “clownish” to describe what authors should desist, while writing a familiar style. When such words are employed, a reader immediately gets a dirty and unhappy feeling. The above descriptive dictions in the essay explains how a familiar style should be.

According to Hazlitt, the essential difference between a familiar style and a gaudy style is that the latter is more or less empty of meaning. Such authors use alliterations, words and phrases in close successive beginning with the same letter, as in “An Austrian Army awfully arrayed” and with astounding antithesis-surprising contradictions in ideas. Hazlitt choses to criticize such authors, as those who are using sentences that connect the poles-that is they try connect together unrelated things, as if they try to connect North Pole and South Pole. Hazlitt alludes to such writers as “fustians”, referring them to the lines in Milton`s Paradise Lost, as under.
“And on their pens Fustian sits plumed”
Fustians: a speech or a writing that sounds impressive but with no substance.

Finally, Hazlitt concludes that writers of gaudy style rarely care for the subjects they deal with; they are interested only in pomp phrases and big words but they cannot touch the heart of the readers and hence the importance of Familiar style, where the reader shall have the comfort of reading with interest.

We may also add that Hazlitt, while advocating familiar style of writing, he himself is a victim to cant and pompous words and phrases, like spangled veil, cull out a florilegium, rival the tulippomania etc. However, it is quiet natural for scholars like Hazlitt, to use certain slipshod allusions and words, as he is blessed with a keen insight, which he developed and exploited in multiple ways, on multiple facets of social life.


Antithesis, Cant, Charles Lamb, Descriptive Diction, Drjohnson, Familiar Style, Fustians, Gaudy Style, Parallel Structure, Pompous, Prolific

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author avatar suyam
Retired executive of Canara Bank,with 31 years experience-Good exposure in Finance,Banking,Foreign Exchange,Credit Management and Risk Management-Interested in English Literature,writing articles.

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
10th Jun 2015 (#)

Good article Suyam. I remember reading Hazlitt in school - siva

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author avatar suyam
10th Jun 2015 (#)

Thanks for ur comments.Though Hazlitt advocates familiar style ,here and there,he alludes to Milton,Shakespeare.Readers find it difficult to comprehend.Yet his command over English Literature is really laudable.. ,

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author avatar Diya dutta
27th Dec 2015 (#)

I am a student of English honours.this article helps me a lot.thanks

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author avatar suyam
28th Jan 2016 (#)

I am glad that this article helps you by way of value addition for ur successful completion of English Honours.Wish you all the best.

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author avatar Jay
6th Sep 2016 (#)

what would you say the tone of the essay was

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author avatar Indrajeet maurya
13th Dec 2017 (#)

Nice summary in very easy way to understand with best style

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author avatar Indrajeet maurya
13th Dec 2017 (#)

Also best example

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author avatar suyam
14th Dec 2017 (#)

Thanks for your understanding the review on "The Familiar Style" by Hazlitt.People who have flair for English Literature will be able to admire such reviews.I hope you are either Literature student or a guy interested in English Literature.Anyhow your words are quite encouraging.Suyampirakasam

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author avatar Mithi
3rd Feb 2018 (#)

Thanx 4 giving an easy opportunity 2 understand

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author avatar suyam
5th Feb 2018 (#)

Nice to hear your comments.
May I know about you sir?

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author avatar Amrutha
16th Jun 2018 (#)

Thankyou sir for giving such a simple a student it is very useful for me.....

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author avatar Fazil
8th Dec 2018 (#)

very simple and easy to grasp thank you sir

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