If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter

Blaise Pascal? John Locke? Benjamin Franklin? Henry David Thoreau? Cicero? Woodrow Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was planning to end a letter with the following remark:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

But the number of different people credited with this comment is so numerous that an explanatory appendix would have been required, and the letter was already too long. Here is a partial list of attributions I have seen: Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire, Blaise Pascal, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Winston Churchill, Pliny the Younger, Cato, Cicero, Bill Clinton, and Benjamin Franklin. Did anybody in this group really say it?

Quote Investigator: Some of the attributions you have listed are spurious, but several are supported by solid evidence. The first known instance in the English language was a sentence translated from a text written by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The French statement appeared in a letter in a collection called “Lettres Provinciales” in the year 1657: 1 2 3

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

Here is one possible modern day translation of Pascal’s statement. Note that the term “this” refers to the letter itself.

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

An English translation was created in 1658 and published in London. Here is an excerpt from that early rendition of the letter: 4

My Letters were not wont to come so close one in the neck of another, nor yet to be so large. The short time I have had hath been the cause of both. I had not made this longer than the rest, but that I had not the leisure to make it shorter then it is.

Pascal’s notion was quite memorable, and it was discussed in a French book about language. That work was translated and published in London in 1676 as “The Art of Speaking”: 5

These Inventions require much wit, and application; and therefore it was, that Mons. Pascal (an Author very famous for his felicity in comprising much in few words) excused himself wittily for the extravagant length of one of his Letters, by saying, he had not time to make it shorter.

In 1688 a religious controversialist named George Tullie included a version of the witticism in an essay he wrote about the celibacy of the clergy: 6

The Reader will I doubt too soon discover that so large an interval of time was not spent in writing this discourse; the very length of it will convince him, that the writer had not time enough to make a shorter.

Below are listed several variations of the expression as used by well known, lesser known, and unknown individuals. The philosopher John Locke, the statesman Benjamin Franklin, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and the President Woodrow Wilson all presented statements matching this theme and the details are provided.

Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research, but one of his tangentially related quotations is given later for your entertainment.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1688 “A Geographical Dictionary” by Edmund Bohun was published. This reference work presented an alphabetically list of cities, towns, rivers, mountains and other locations together with descriptions. The author crafted the following variant of the remark: 7

The Reader may pardon this long Discourse, because the Subject so well deserved it, and I wanted Art to make it shorter.

In 1690 the philosopher John Locke released his famous work “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” with a prefatory section called “The Epistle to the Reader”. Locke commented on the length of his essay and indicated why he decided not to shorten it: 8

I will not deny, but possibly it might be reduced to a narrower Compass than it is; and that some Parts of it might be contracted: The way it has been writ in, by Catches, and many long Intervals of Interruption, being apt to cause some Repetitions. But to confess the Truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy to make it shorter.

In 1704 the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London printed a letter from William Cowper that contained the following: 9

If in this I have been tedious, it may be some excuse, I had not time to make it shorter.

In 1750 Benjamin Franklin composed a letter describing his groundbreaking experiments involving electricity and sent it to a member of the Royal Society in London. Franklin excused the length of his report as follows: 10

I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.

The quotation is sometimes attached to famous figures in antiquity. For example, in 1824 a version of the quote was assigned to the Roman orator Cicero: 11

Cicero excuses himself for having written a long letter, by saying he had not time to make it shorter.

The German theologian Martin Luther died in 1546. A biographical work published in London in 1846 attributed the following words to him: 12

If I had my time to go over again, I would make my sermons much shorter, for I am conscious they have been too wordy.

In 1857 Henry David Thoreau wrote a letter to a friend that offered commentary about story length: 13

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.

In 1871 Mark Twain wrote a letter to a friend that included a remark about the length of his note. Twain’s comment did not really match the quotation under investigation but it is related to the general theme: 14

You’ll have to excuse my lengthiness—the reason I dread writing letters is because I am so apt to get to slinging wisdom & forget to let up. Thus much precious time is lost.

According to an anecdote published in 1918 Woodrow Wilson was asked about the amount of time he spent preparing speeches, and his response was illuminating: 15

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

QI has examined a family of similar sayings about speeches in an entry located here.

In conclusion, Blaise Pascal wrote a version of this saying in French and it quickly moved into the English language. The notion was very popular and variants of the expression have been employed by other notable figures in history. The saying has also been assigned to some prominent individuals without adequate factual support.

(The investigation was motivated by an inquiry from a brilliant and entertaining writer who is also a strong leader of a writing group in Florida.)

Update History: On March 5, 2014 the 1918 citation was added and the previous 1946 citation to a Woodrow Wilson biography was removed.

Notes:

  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Blaise Pascal, Page 583, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 119-120, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Section: Blaise Pascal, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed March 27, 2012)
  4. 1658, Les Provinciales, or, The Mystery of Jesuitisme by Blaise Pascal, [Translated into English], Second Edition Corrected, Page 292, Letter 16: Postscript, [Letter addressed to Reverend Fathers from Blaise Pascal], Printed for Richard Royston, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1676, The Art of Speaking, Written in French by Messieurs Du Port Royal: In Pursuance of a former Treatise, Intitled, The Art of Thinking, Rendred into English, Page 8, Printed by W. Godbid, London. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1688, An Answer to a Discourse Concerning the Celibacy of the Clergy by George Tullie, Preface, [Page 2 of Preface; unnumbered], Oxford, Printed at the Theater for Richard Chiswell, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1688, A Geographical Dictionary, Representing the Present and Ancient Names of all the Countries, Provinces, Remarkable Cities, …, Of the Whole World by Edmund Bohun, [Page unnumbered], Page Header: AT, Column 2, Printed for Charles Brome, London. (Google Books full view) link
  8. 1714, The Works of John Locke Esq: In Three Volumes, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, [Essay originally published in 1690], The Epistle to the Reader, Page vii, Printed for John Churchill, London. (Google Books full view) link
  9. 1706 [1704 March and April issue], Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, A Letter to Dr. Edward Tyson from William Cowper, Start Page 1576, Quote Page 1586, Printed for S. Smith and B. Walford, Printers to the Royal Society, London. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1754, New Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America by Benjamin Franklin, Second Edition, Part I, [Letter to Peter Collinson from Benjamin Franklin; Dated July 29, 1750], Start Page 50, Quote Page 82, Printed and sold by D. Henry and R. Cave, London. (Google Books full view) link
  11. 1824 August, The Harmonicon: A Journal of Music, Number 20, Signor Rossini and Signor Carpani, Start Page 153, Quote Page 156, Published by William Pinnock, Music Warehouse, London. (Google Books full view) link
  12. 1846, The Life of Luther: Written By Himself, Collected and Arranged by M. Michelet, [Translated by William Hazlitt], Table Talk – Preaching, Page 293, Published by David Bogue, London. (Google Books full view) link
  13. 1879, Letters to Various Persons by Henry David Thoreau, [Letter dated November 16, 1857 to Mr. B: Harrison Blake], Start Page 161, Quote Page 165, Riverside Press, Cambridge, Houghton, Osgood, and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link
  14. 1871 June 15, Letter from Mark Twain to James Redpath, Elmira, New York, UCCL 00617 (Union Catalog of Clemens Letters), Mark Twain Project Online. (Accessed marktwainproject.org on 2012 April 24) link
  15. 1918 April, The Operative Miller, Volume 23, Number 4, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 130, Column 1, Operative Miller Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link

2 thoughts on “If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter

  1. A famous Spanish quotation on this theme: “Lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno” (Baltasar Gracián: Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia, Huesca 1647, #105). Or, as I like to put it: “Lo bueno, si breve, mejor”.

    English translation by Joseph Jacobs: “Good things, when short, are twice as good” (Baltasar Gracian: The Art of Worldly Wisdom, London: MacMillan 1904, #cv).

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