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Monday, August 6, 2012

Writing English as a Second Language | William Zinsser, The American Scholar

I just came across this excellent Zinsser talk to incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in August 2009. His advice is also essential to native English speakers. (Zinsser's 17 books include On Writing Well, now in its seventh edition, Writing to Learn, and Writing with a Word Processor.)

After introductory comments addressed to his international audience, Zinsser asked:
What is good English—the language we’re here today to wrestle with? It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of your native languages. But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. ...
And he continued, talking about "the damaging habits" of using English wrong.

He explained that English comes from two main sources: Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Words from ancient Rome, he said, "will strangle everything you write," while words from the "plain languages" of England and northern Europe "will set you free."

And why do those Latin words strangle and suffocate the way we communicate? Zinnser said:
In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in -ent—like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something.
His perfect example:
  • Latin--“Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” 
  • Anglo-Saxon--“Before we fixed our money problems.” 
He explained that Latin-derived vocabulary uses long vague nouns and weak passive verbs, while Anglo-Saxon-derived vocabulary uses short descriptive nouns and strong active verbs.

Zinsser then said, with disdain:
[Latin] is the language that people in authority in America routinely use—officials in government and business and education and social work and health care. They think those long Latin words make them sound important.
And he gave more real-life examples of bad writing and good.

For example, from Thoreau's Walden in 1854. Good:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of nature, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
And rewritten, bad:
A decision was made to go to the woods because of a desire for a deliberate existence and for exposure to only the essential facts of life, and for possible instruction in its educational elements, and because of a concern that at the time of my death the absence of a meaningful prior experience would be apprehended.
Zinsser then described his "four principles of writing good English." Briefly, they are:
  • Clarity. If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. ...
  • Simplicity. Simple is good. ... Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart.
  • Brevity. Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many. Don’t say facilitate if you can say ease. ...
  • Humanity. Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior. ...
As Zinsser concluded, he emphasized two points:

First, writing in plain language is even more important these days as people get more and more information through the "new media":
This principle applies—and will apply—to every digital format; nobody wants to consult a Web site that isn’t instantly clear. Clarity, brevity, and sequential order will be crucial to your success.
Second, organization of that information must be based on logical thinking:
You can solve most of your writing problems if you stop after every sentence and ask: "What does the reader need to know next?”
Supporting both those points, Zinsser noted a maxim his students find helpful: One thought per sentence.

He said:
Readers only process one thought at a time. So give them time to digest the first set of facts you want them to know. Then give them the next piece of information they need to know, which further explains the first fact. Be grateful for the period. Writing is so hard that all of us, once launched, tend to ramble. Instead of a period we use a comma, followed by a transitional word (and, while), and soon we have strayed into a wilderness that seems to have no road back out. Let the humble period be your savior. ...
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This article is featured in today's (Aug. 6) Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs--available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription. For more related information, visit Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

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