Umberto Eco – 40 rules to speak better Italian (valid for each language where the absurd can be expressed)

April 26, 2019 11:57 am


The following list of rules does not just want to fulfill the task to make the dear reader smile for a couple of minutes. Thanks to it it is possible to grasp the self-similar hence tautological hence potentially paradoxical nature of the language.
The rule is a constant which pervades a remarkably wide conceptual frame. Like a background or an everlasting situation it remains almost unnoticed, although its influence is heavy.
Breaking the rule means producing meaning, freeing all the latent energies that the retaining action of the rule was holding back.
Thanks to this wonderful dynamics, the language represents the only system where something can actually be expressed by denying or even not saying it (and vice versa).

  1. Avoid alliterations, although they allure the fools.
  2. It is not that conjunctives shall be avoided, on the contrary, let´s use it when necessary.
  3. Avoid stock-phrases: it will make a difference.
  4. Express yourself as you nourish  yourself.
  5. Do not use commercial codes & abbreviations etc.
  6. Remember (always) that brackets (even when they seem indispensable) interrupts the thread of the speech.
  7. … be careful not to do… indigestion of suspension dots…
  8. Use as few quotation marks as possible: it’s not “nice”.
  9. Never generalize.
  10. Foreign words don’t represent any bon ton.
  11. Be greedy of quotes. Emerson rightly said, “I hate quotes. Just tell me what you know”.
  12. Comparisons are like stock-phrases.
  13. Don’t be redundant; don’t repeat the same thing twice; the repetition is superfluous (by redundancy we mean the useless explanation of something that the reader has already understood);
  14. Only assholes use vulgar words.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. The hyperbole is the most extraordinary of expressive techniques.
  17. Don’t make sentences of a single word. Delete´em.
  18. Stave off too bold metaphors: they are feathers on the scales of a snake.
  19. Put,  the commas,  in the right place.
  20. Distinguish between the function of the semicolon and that of the colon: even if it is not easy.
  21. If you don’t find the suitable expression, never use a foreign one: Is onórai poll nois ná paiste.*
  22. Don’t use incongruous metaphors even if they seem to “sing” to you: they are like derailing swans.
  23. Do you really need rhetorical questions?
  24. Be concise, try to condense your thoughts into as few words as possible, avoiding long sentences – or sentences broken by dashes that inevitably confuse the inattentive reader – so that your speech does not contribute to that pollution of information that is certainly (especially when unnecessarily filled with unnecessary details, or at least not indispensable) one of the tragedies of our times dominated by the power of the media.
  25. Accénts must not be incorréct nor useless, bécause the ones who do it áre wróng.**
  26. Put a “n” after the indefinite article, only if it comes before an vowel.
  27. Don’t be emphatic!
  28. Even the worst barbarism aficionados do not pluralize foreign terms.
  29. Write down foreign names like Beaudelaire, Roosewelt, Niezsche in the exact way.
  30. Appoint authors and characters you talk about directly, without periphrasis. Thus did the greatest Lombard writer of the nineteenth century, the author of “5 May”.
  31. At the beginning of the speech, use the captatio benevolentiae, to attract the favor of the reader (but perhaps you are so stupid you do not to even understand what I’m telling you)
  32. Punctilioussly heal the speling.
  33. Useless to tell you how cloying apophasis are.
  34. Don’t head too often to line.

    At least not when you don’t need to.

  35. Never use the pluralis majestatis. We think it  makes a terrible impression.
  36. Don’t confuse the cause with the effect: you would be mistaken and therefore you would have been wrong.
  37. Do not construct sentences in which the conclusion does not follow logically from the premises: if everyone did so, then the premises would come out of the conclusions.
  38. Do not indulge in archaisms, hapax legomena or other unusual lexemes, as well as deep rhizomatic structures that, although they seem to you to be as many epiphanies of the grammatical difference and invitations to deconstructive drift – but even worse it would be if they were objectionable to the scrutiny of those who read with ecdotic acrimony – still exceed the cognitive skills of the recipient.
  39. You don’t have to be prolix, but you don’t have to say less than that either.
  40. A completed sentence must have:

Umberto Eco, La Bustina di Minerva, Milan, Bompiani, 2000.

* Here we are, I am sure you are thinking that this translation is too bold. The original article reports: “peso el tacòn del buso”, a proverb in Milanese dialect which literally means: “The patch is worse than the hole”. I used the irish version: “A hole is more honorable than a patch”. The issue assumes now a metalinguistic connotation: was it a good choice to use the irish language in this case? Is its status comparable to the Milanese? Is its relationship to English alike the one between Milanese and Italian? Let us know your opinion!

** Fine, this one was not that funny, because the english language does not make use of accents. However, how would you have translated it? Leave us a comment below!


You could be interested in:


Check out also a similar  piece of the American journalist William Safire:


Translated from the original by Cosimo Palma, Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg).

4,518 total views, 3 views today

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categorised in: ,

Leave a Reply