Polya’s three rules of style
by Orr Shalit
In G. Polya‘s book “How to Solve It”, one of the shortest sections is called “Rules of style”. This section contains Polya’s three rules of style, which are worth repeating.
“The first rule of style”, writes Polya, “is to have something to say”.
“The second rule of style is to control yourself when, by chance, you have two things to say; say first one, then the other, not both at the same time”.
Polya’s third rule of style is: “Don’t say what does not need to be said” or maybe “Don’t say the obvious”. I am not sure of the exact formulation, because Polya doesn’t write the third rule down – that would be a violation of the rule!
Polya’s three rules are excellent and one is advised to follow them if one strives for good style when writing mathematics. However, style is not the only criterion by which we measure mathematical writing. There is a tradeoff between succinct and elegant style, on the one hand, and clarity and precision, on the other.
“Don’t say the obvious” – sure! But what is obvious? And to whom? A careful writer leaving a well placed exercise in a textbook is one thing. An author of a long and technical paper that leaves an exercise to the poor, overworked referee, is something different. And, of course, a mathematician leaving cryptic notes to his four-months-older self, is the most annoying of them all.
“Don’t say the obvious” – sure, sure! But is it even true? I think that all the mistakes that I am responsible for publishing have originated by an omission of an “obvious” argument. I won’t speak about actual mistakes made by others, but I do have the feeling that some people have gotten away with not explaining something non-trivial, and were lucky that things turned out to be as their intuition suggested (granted, having the correct intuition is also a non-trivial achievement).
I disagree with Polya’s third rule of style. And you see, to reject it, I had to formulate it. QED.