Posts Tagged style

Be brief. Be clear. Be human.

That’s the key to good writing in English, as numerous books, training programmes and web sites on writing would have us believe. Everyone’s campaigning for Clear English. Or Plain English. (Are they the same?)

It’s all the rage in today’s corporate workplace. No one wants good, old-fashioned grammar and correct usage anymore. “Oh we know all that,” they say airily. They have a point and they want to make it, quickly and clearly.  Today’s writing is for a global audience (global suggesting, I presume, ‘shorn of local identities’). That’s what they tell un-cool, pre-historic English teachers. Like me.

If you don’t believe me, just pick up books like Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish – enraged polemic that attacks the “obscure, verbose, and muddled” English of journalistic and business writing in India. I quite agree. However, such writing is definitely not peculiar to India or Indian writing. Nunberg has a list of groaners that litter journalistic and media news-writing in the West. Here’s a sampler:

Aftermath – Print words don’t belong in spoken copy. Do you know anyone who says ‘aftermath’ in normal conversation? When we were kids, aftermath came recess.
Mastermind – Anytime there’s more than one mugger/bank robber/con artist working together, we reward the guy in charge with this silly title, instead of just saying he planned the crime. Look, Professor Moriarty outwitting Sherlock Holmes, that’s a mastermind. Some creep who sticks a gun in a teller’s face… no way.

And there’s plenty more where that came from!

Clear writing itself is not exactly a late 20th century invention, or even a product of today’s global (read American) business requirements. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776)  perhaps set the stage for straightforward writing in America with these memorable words:

In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.

(And this was a political pamphlet  – the kind one expects to see riddled with bombast and stylized rhetoric) 

But it’s really Mark Twain’s prose that we think of today as classic American prose – easy, clear and direct. And, of course, one of the best known essays on modern English style is George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (1946).

Now tell me, dear reader mine, is the plain/clear English rhetoric a breakthrough in how to write a clear English sentence? Or has that information really always “been around since the King James Bible?”(Zinsser in his 1976 classic On Writing Well.)

What does this plain/clear English campaign mean to us here in India? Well, we’re being told that the English we learned in school and college – Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Wordsworth, Shelley and the like –  is no help at all for today’s writing requirements. 

Communicative English. That’s what the communication pundits say we need today. As if there can ever be language that is not communicative! Some tautology this.

Am I against the plain/clear English rhetoric? Not really. Given the unflattering levels of unemployment in our country, I’d say if learning Taiwanese English will fetch students jobs, let’s by all means teach it .

However, I’m looking at the underbelly.  And I see, written here, two mantras that I’d like to have a go at.  The first is that to write clearly/plainly you should  ‘write the way you speak’. A mantra that will make your language ‘human’ rather than heavy-handed and bureaucratic. That seems clear enough. But is it? 

Can we, in India, write the way we speak English? Spoken English varies so widely across the country that it would be well nigh impossible to arrive at one variety of ‘standard’ Indian English that everyone might use to write. Which perhaps explains why we revert to the formal, bureaucratic English of the Raj and Victorian England when we write. 

In the absence of a commonly agreed upon spoken variety, and in the face of growing aversion to the “flatulent orotundity” (Sanyal’s phrase) of Indian English, is it any wonder that our youth have taken to the fast, easy-off-the tongue slang of American pop culture – American sitcoms, movies, popular magazines, and web sites?

A bright young man once asked me why he shouldn’t use big and unfamiliar words, when he knew how to use them correctly. And it’s true – he never made a mistake in word choice.  The simple answer, apparently, is “your reader”. One writes for a reader and most readers prefer simple, clear, direct language.  (Which is perhaps a dumbing-down of the reader if you ask me, but that’s for another post.)

I have no gripe with the plain English campaign. Really. I do strive for clarity and precision in my writing. But I rarely succeed, even though every book on style that I read gives me all the formulas: 

  • Make your writing talk.
  • Consider your readers.
  • Be plain.
  • Be yourself.
  • Write from your own experience.
  • Build your thesis.
  • Revise!
  • Etc.

I can’t help but echo Richard Lanham: “A student may actually try to earn all those badges. But if he has any spirit, he’ll murmur a well-chosen four-letter word and go out and get stoned.”

Can one learn style in a vacuum, without the context that gives style its meaning? Can one learn English prose style without a knowledge of the rich tradition that has made English prose style what it is? 

The Style Books get around this rather ingenuously. Abolish style!  they say.  Let style wither away, leaving the bare facts and plain words shining by themselves. That’s clarity for you!  

And the second mantra:   When you know and understand what you’re writing about,  clarity just happens. Everything’s as plain as can be.

Unclear writing is the result of ignorance. It’s the thought that counts. Perish style!

One might just as well say “Be inteligent.” instead of “Be clear.”

Ha! Ha! Ha! With the bar set so high, is it any surprise that I consistently fail to be brief, clear, and human? 

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