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Pithy Prose: the Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

by Philip Yaffe
by Philip Yaffe

Part 1 of an occasional series

I am a collector of quotations. I have been ever since I learned how to write, I mean professionally, not in primary school.

I am particularly fond of what I like to call "pithy prose". These short quotations can cover an unlimited variety of subjects: love, religion, politics, human nature, etc. What unites them is their ability to say more in one or two sentences than could be expressed in a thousand-word treatise. It's like being able to pour a liter of liquid into a half-liter bottle.

They are superb examples of Mark Twain's famous dictum, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

In principle, all writers and public speakers are capable of producing pithy prose, but clearly some are better at it than others.

Any collection of pithy prose must necessarily be biased in terms of what it includes and excludes. I make no apologies for my selections, only for the hundreds of other meritorious quotations I had to leave out.

No one will agree with all these quotations; this was not their intention. You may even find some of them repugnant or outrageous. This was their intention.

We seldom learn anything of value from what we already agree with. Only those ideas that grate on our nerves can open our minds. As with oysters, irritation can produce pearls. So if anything you are about to read annoys or shocks you, try to think clearly and dispassionately about what it is saying. You will either be confirmed in your current belief or shaken into re-examining it.

Either way, you win!

This article is the first of an occasional series. In each succeeding article, I will be offering more amusing, educating, and exasperating quotations to your judgment. But just to be certain that we agree on what we are talking about, here it is in a nutshell.

Pithy Prose: A quotation where at first you may not be quite certain what it means. But when you become certain, you become equally certain that it couldn't have been said better any other way. In short, big ideas in small packages.

If you have a better definition of pithy prose, please contact me. I would love to hear it.

I have already mentioned Mark Twain, so I will begin with him. He offers such a treasure trove of witty, perceptive quotations that it would be almost unthinkable to start with anyone else.

Mark Twain (1835 - 1910), whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was a product of the American Deep South. "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", "The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin", and "Life on the Mississippi", his three most popular books, clearly reflect this origin. However, like all great authors, Mark Twain's books, essays, and other writings go far beyond geography. They are universal.

So In no particular order, here are his pithy prose on a variety of subjects.

1. A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.

2. A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.

3. Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.

4. Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

5. All generalizations are false, including this one.

6. Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

7. Who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?

8. Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.

9. Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.

10. Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.

11. Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.

12. Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.

13. Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.

14. I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

15. I can live for two months on a good compliment.

16. I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know.

17. I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.

18. It isn't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

19. It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

20. It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.

21. It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.

22. Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

23. Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.

24. Man - a creature made at the end of the week's work when God was tired.

25. Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to.

26. Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.

27. One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.

28. Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

29. Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.

30. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

31. The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.

32. There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist.

33. The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become.

34. The most interesting information comes from children, for they tell all they know and then stop.

35. Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does all the work.

36. When a person cannot deceive himself, the chances are against his being able to deceive other people.

37. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.

38. When in doubt, tell the truth.

39. You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.

A Final Word

Mark Twain is an almost inexhaustible source of pithy prose. The quotations included here barely scratch the surface. Let me conclude with a comment by the perhaps the only other source of pithy prose more prolific. Mark Twain never said this, or at least I never found the quotation. But I am certain it is something he would have liked to have said.

"Most of us prefer to disparage a person who is almost always right rather than asking why we ourselves are almost always wrong." – Anon.

Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium ( and Amazon (


Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. Now semi-retired, he teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. He is the author of In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional. Contact:

For further information, contact:

Philip Yaffe

Brussels, Belgium

Tel: +32 (0)2 660 0405,

Book: Shattered Sighs