How to stop making your English "ugly and inaccurate"--in case you were wondering!
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.”
This is an excerpt from George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language essay. When a foolish thought comes to mind and we rely on slovenly language to express it, the writer, not the thought, is dismissed for being a fool. When a writer takes the time to formulate thoughts in grammatically correct sentences – free of dangling modifiers and particles – the foolishness of a thought will become evident to the writer before he makes a fool of himself.
Writers have expressed their thoughts and ideas in ways we can use for guidance. Rudyard Kipling’s Elephant’s Child from his Just So Stories is an example:
I Keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
When setting out to write a report of any kind on any subject, begin with a list of Kipling’s What, Where, When, How, Why and Who questions. Early drafts of any report should include answers to each of Kipling’s questions as they relate to the subject.
A writing project may have a narrow focus, and time may be limited. However, answers to Kipling’s six questions are essential to the coherence of the final report; time is not a factor. How can readers be assured that all aspects relating to a report’s subject are taken into account and correctly interpreted, and that the conclusions drawn are substantiated, if questions related to any one of Kipling’s questions have been ignored by the writer to expedite his conclusions or recommendations? Findings, conclusions, and recommendations reached without consideration of answers to Kipling’s six questions serve above all to establish the writer’s slovenliness.
Elizabeth Akers Allen’s Poem About Adjectives speaks to their use. These are the poem’s opening and closing stanzas:
Where would the force of language be
Without the adjective?
How could the critic wing his shaft?
How could the poet live?
Yet I for once defy thy might,
For mark me, as I live,
No stanza of the nine here writ
Contains an adjective!
The purpose of adjectives and adverbs is to qualify or quantify nouns and verbs. The misuse and abuse of adjectives and adverbs paves the road for slovenly writing. We can measure the appropriateness of adjectives and adverbs by substituting an antonym. Example: a news report about a “brutal murder”.
“Brutal” has many antonyms, including calm, civilized, friendly, gentle, courteous, mild, temperate, humane, and more. Could a murder be any of these? Death may be caused by an accident or by negligence. It may result from an act of violence, with or without the consequence having been intended. The brutal adjective does not add precision to the message; it merely serves to stir emotions.
We aggravate slovenliness when we accumulate adjectives and adverbs. What is the difference between something that is nice and something that is really nice or, better yet, something that is really, really nice? If “nice” alone does not convey what we mean to convey, would affable, beautiful, charming, dainty, elegant, favourable, good, happy, impeccable, lovely, modest, neat, pleasant, refined, suitable, trim, or wholesome say what we mean?
Rather than searching a Thesaurus for an adjective or adverb to present our chosen noun or verb in the right light, why not take Elizabeth Allen’s advice, spend the time and make the effort to find the noun or verb which says precisely what we mean?
The meaning of a word may change radically depending on its use. Dogs have admirable qualities and serve humanity in countless ways, but none of these qualities apply when we refer to someone as being a dog. A word used in reference to individuals, events, or objects may reveal more about the writer’s attitude and prejudices than it does about the subject. Alexander Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism speaks to the use of words. A few excerpts:
Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.
False eloquence, like the prismatic glass,
Its gaudy colours spreads on every place;
A vile Conceit in pompous words expressed
Is like a clown in regal purple dressed:
In words as fashions the same rule will hold,
Alike fantastic if too new or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
Speed moves writers to compress thoughts into acronyms whose substance is soon lost. We may insert LMAO in a 140-character message but would never write “laughing my ass off” if the same message were written in long-hand.
When a first draft is written, read it out loud to yourself. Print it out, double spaced, and pass it on to a colleague to read and criticize. Set it aside overnight and read it again the next morning. Remove adjectives and adverbs to clarify the message. Orwell wrote his essay in 1945, Kipling his story in 1902, Allen her poem in 1886, and Pope wrote his in 1709. What you write will last – slow down!
A Canadian Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker, Nancy Sommers, Marcy Carbajal Van Horn
Andre Carrel is a retired city administrator and full time grandpal.