Sunday, September 18, 2022

Thing One, Thing Two, Thing No – a mild diatribe about the use of thing in writing



I teach English writing to first-year engineering students in Israel. As their written communication skills in their own language are limited, partly as a result of the adopted European policy to completely separating humanities from sciences as if science people do not need to write, I assume no prior knowledge of writing and teach the basic rules of sentence writing and paragraph organization as well as a few tips on vocabulary. Among them, I tell them that I will not accept the use of the word “thing” and even deduct points for it. This insistence may sound extreme at first glance but one major distinction between speaking and writing is that in the latter the writer has the privilege and duty to carefully consider each word and choose precise terms, which almost always exist in English. My approach is similar to “thing”’s cousins, something and nothing but these words may be appropriate in certain cases.

The justification for being so particular in assessing writing skill is that the process of writing involves not only the initial expression of the thought but also the further refining of its form. As the expression says, there is no good writing, only good rewriting.Readers do not want to read a first draft and naturally expect a carefully phrased text. While true for all languages, English requires extra polishing due to the plethora of language roots that have been integrated, often rather violently, into the language. From Gaelic to Germanic to French Latin and ancient Greek, English is the Frankenstein of world languages, rather imposing but a bit ugly, to the ear at least, as compared to more homogenous languages such as French, Italian, Hebrew and Russian, to name a few. Thus, to produce diamond of a text in English requires effort (and why I appreciate the prose of George Orwell). Furthermore, aside from emotions, English has a word for almost every existing object, especially in science, making it possible to use the precise term. Given the multitude of roots, many of the vocabulary options are far from high-falutin, with the average 11th grade able to understand if not necessarily spell them. Thus, it is appropriate to demand that writers of English, both native and non-native, use an exact term.

The word thing implies around 325,000 terms as well an additional 375,000 technical terms, according to Dr. Google. As an example, the phrase “things” can be replaced, as relevant, by reasons, excuses, factors, elements, data, objects, feelings, results, causes, effects, events, products and facts, to name just a very few that most English users would recognize and be able to use. As for specific technical terms, people specializing in a specific subject area need to know the exact word in order to express their ideas accurately. In some cases, this precision is a matter of life and death or at least large sums of money. Given the privilege of being able to refine a text before showing to the audience, as compared to spoken language, it is brazenly lazy to write thing unless a person is writing for small children.

As for something and nothing, the same statement is true with some exceptions. A given company may have something special about it but the investor would like to know whether it is the marketing strategy or actual product. There may be nothing you can do about a situation when speaking but somehow having no solutions sounds much more impressive in writing. Granted, if the attribute is so ethereal that a person cannot identify its attributes, something may be appropriate as James Taylor sings: “Something in the way she moves”. Of course, mathematical zero is nothing as Billy Preston noted in “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing”. Sometimes there simply is no precise word to describe all the items as in “These are a few of my favorite things” of Sound of Music fame. So, I never say never and occasionally accept these things.

Fairly or unfairly, people heavily judge writers of English by their choice of vocabulary. Clearly, non-native writers have a lower bar in term of vocabulary choice but that allowance does not waive the requirement to use precise, albeit simple, words when preparing a written text. Clearly, things lead to chaos as Dr. Seuss so well described in this book. However, even he added a number to the shirt of his things to specify them. Proficient writers should have no things.


* Picture captions allow the blind to fully access the Internet.

Picture credit

No comments:

Post a Comment