Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Writing it Right

To most foreigners, English seems a reasonably easy language to speak.  With a few words and a most basic understanding of grammar, non-native speakers quickly start making sentences, even the Chinese whose native syntax is so different. Expressing ideas in writing in English is another story. Given the luxury and curse of being able to review the sentence before sending off to another person, people realize how “foreign” their English is, not to mention how much it shows their lack of vocabulary and knowledge of grammar. As a professional teacher of English and a non-gifted writer, meaning I had to work hard to learn how to be able to write properly, I see three major difficulties in crafting the language of Shakespeare on paper.

The most obvious difficulty is vocabulary.  Except in regards to emotions, there is no excuse not to say exactly what you mean.  Words like good, bad and thing are essentially meaningless due to the extreme range of specific contexts they carry. Not only that, given the number of synonyms, it is considered bad form to repeat the same word in the same sentence or even in the paragraph. Writers impress by their richness of vocabulary, for better or worse. Investors invest in future investments is not going to cut it when words such as place money, speculate and opportunities, to name just a few, could also be used, albeit with a slightly different meaning.  To be a good writer, a rich vocabulary is necessary.
There is also the matter of sounds. Relatively homogeneous languages, such as French, Hebrew and Russian, the languages from which I translate, have a natural rhythm. They easily create a song: Je suis comme je suis. Je suis faite comme ca, as André Prévert said. English, alas, is comprised from three major language families, Gaelic, Germanic and Latin (French), not to mention the countless words derived from other sources, such as ketchup (Chinese), jubilee (Hebrew) and kangaroo (aborigine). The result of this mixed cocktail is a series of words whose rhythms and sounds are rather cacophonous. A diamond of a sentence in English takes serious polishing. That is the reason that I admire writers, such as Orwell, whose writing has the illusion of being so effortless.

Finally, ultimately the most demanding criterion of proper English writing is the requirement that the author actually say something and even efficiently.  Having content may seem obvious but, in fact, many languages strongly de-emphasize it when judging the quality of good writing. In French, especially the modern version, the witty phrase always gets the applause, even no serious thought lies behind it. In Russian, ideas become rather obtuse due to the fluid sentence structure and extreme use of filler words that have no actual meaning. Sentences there tend to be rather convoluted and long, often weakening the impact of the idea. There is no such luxury in English. If you write in an ornate, i.e. overly complicated style, readers tend to think that you are trying to impress or, even worse, hide your lack of knowledge. Neither is desirable.

So, my advice, once again as a teacher, to foreign learners of English is read a lot in English to build up your vocabulary; read your sentences out loud and revise until they sound good; and, finally, don’t get too fancy with the sentence structure. Instead, focus on the ideas and organization.  These goals are easier said than done but still attainable.

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