Language

23 Oct

When I was at school, my English language examinations had an essay writing section with 20% weight in the overall score. The topics generally required the student to come up with a creative fictional prose. I was terrible at writing fiction. To make up for this, I made a genuine effort to brush up my vocabulary to make my writing fetch more marks. I used to write down words in a notebook and rote them with a religious fervor. By the end of school, I was writing essays with such complex words that I would have difficulty in understanding them if I were to read them today.

During the next three years of my graduation, I was of the opinion that good writing should involve maximum use of jargon, difficult words and complex sentences. After all, what better way to convince a reader that you are an ‘expert’ than to communicate in such difficult terms that the reader is left feeling uneducated?

How wrong I was.

My professional life turned this opinion upside down. My work demanded strict adherence to the The Economist Style Guide. Language I was told should be crisp and to the point. Jargon and difficult words should be avoided. Sentences should be short and should not involve even one extra word than what is required. A part of the style guide was accessible online but it has now temporarily been removed. You can purchase a hard copy of the style guide here.

The more complex the language, the less the writer himself understands what he is writing. There are obviously numerous exceptions. The one that immediately comes to my mind is F.A. Hayek. I have personally found his way of writing a little difficult to follow, but it cannot certainly be said that he did not understand what he was writing. Another exception is that language is a function of time. So if you pick up one of Keynes’ essays, you would find the style of language quite different, but that again does not mean Keynes did not know what he was writing.

Krugman provides a link to an excellent article by George Orwell on English language. It is a must read. Orwell gives examples of poor style of writing that has gained popularity by appearing ‘scientific.’

Here is an example,

On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity?

– from Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)

With regard to sentences like the above, Orwell says,

….quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose…

Another excerpt from Orwell’s article,

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

[Sentence 1] I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

[Sentence 2] Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account. 

Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

As things stand, if a person were to express his views using Sentence 2 instead of Sentence 1, he would easily pass as an ‘expert.’ Sentence 1 is ordinary and fails to generate awe and mysticism – two attributes the ‘expert’ needs to rise above the commoners.

There are numerous ‘experts’ who hide behind the cloak of poor writing. The shaky foundations of their knowledge will stand exposed if their writing is stripped of jargon and convoluted sentences. A true expert on the other hand communicates with clarity and precision, demonstrating his subject matter expertise. If you watch Milton Friedman’s documentary series “Free to Choose,” you will know what I am talking about.

The bottom line – clarity in language demonstrates clarity in thoughts.

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3 Responses to “Language”

  1. shwetabh October 23, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    A really good piece.. You have kept it very simple, but you still are an expert for me 🙂

  2. Anand October 24, 2011 at 4:24 am #

    Nicely Put. Good writing is all about how easily you are able to convey to your readers what you intend to.

    I totally agree. For details refer to : http://anandtakingstock.blogspot.com/2009/12/big-words.html

  3. Ravi Saraogi November 7, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    @ shwetabh….ha ha ha… you are a master of sarcasm…

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