Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A sure cure for those who believe that good writing necessarily involves the use of bombastic phrases and big words

"From 2002 to 2012, it has been one long, heart wrenching and mind searing decade; an agonising 10 years that saw us corralled into a black hole of existential angst provoked by a fratricidal polemic catechism that cast serious doubt on our intrinsic identity as a civilised nation". What is the journalist trying to say here? Why can't journalists write in English in English dailies/sites?

This lament on Facebook by my friend Sudhir Prabhu gives me an opportunity to ride my favourite hobby-horse: Railing against the decline in standards of written English and correcting the alarming tendency to believe that "flowery" English is good English.

Sudhir was referring to a column he had read on, not in a newspaper. Written by someone called Vivek Gumaste, the article is a comment on the SIT report on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. After reading that dense intro, my heart went out to Sudhir. Really, what does Gumaste's opening sentence mean? A quick search on the net revealed this little tidbit about the writer: "Vivek Gumaste is a US-based academic and political commentator." Ah! Mystery solved Gumaste, from what I can make out, is most emphatically NOT a journalist; he is an academic, and academic writers love clutter, which explains why his piece is littered with "academese".

I have to say here, though, that our English newspapers and magazines are also guilty, sometimes, of publishing news reports and features written in a language that, to put it mildly, is uninteresting.

Which brings me to a book that has just been delivered to me by Flipkart.

Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers is a sure cure for those who believe that good writing necessarily involves the use of bombastic phrases and big words. Written by Harold Evans, this book is primarily for journalists, but "its lessons are of immense value to all who face the problem of giving information, whether to the general public or within business, professional, or social organisations".

Evans has been hailed as a "great editor, great teacher of editors" by one of his successors at The Times (London). He has also been praised as a "master of how to use the English language". And Essential English comes highly recommended by The Society of Editors: "The book was required reading for all those who became journalists in the 1970s. This new edition must become required reading for all those who will become journalists in the new millennium."

Writing in the preface, Neil Fowler, president of the Society of Editors, explains why this book is essential reading:

It has become far too fashionable for the use of good English to be derided. Indeed our own profession has not always helped the matter. Newspapers, radio stations, and television broadcasters have all contributed to sloppy usage of the language. This is not to say that English should not be dynamic and move forward. Of course it should. But it must also be correct. There is a virtue in all language being correct and the journalist who believes otherwise is a poor journalist.

...information is of no use at all if it is obscured by poor, jargon-ridden, and dense English. Clear English should be a priority for all those who use the language. And news English at its best is the clearest English of all.
  • Essential English consists of nine chapters, each of which is an education in itself. Evans begins with "The Making of a Newspaper", before moving on to "Good English", "Words", "Watch this Language", "The Structure of a News Story Intros", The Structure of a News Story The News Lead", and "Background". He ends the book with "Headlines" and "Headline Vocabulary". Order your copy from Flipkart today.

* The book you must read to rid your English of Indlish. In other words, read this book to learn to write plain English

* In one place, everything you want to know about writing in English


  1. I stumbled across your blog while researching Vivek Gumaste (a doctor in New York City), and was very happy to discover someone else with the same hobbyhorse (actually, mine is a soapbox).

    As a longtime professional journalist and creative writer, the #1 thing I tell my (adult) writing students is: If you can talk, you can write--so don’t suddenly switch into pretentious, wordy language that doesn’t sound like you. It doesn’t make you sound smart. It makes you sound like you wish you were smart. Don’t use 25 words when 5 will do. (Some pet peeves: “in order to” instead of “to;” “at this point in time” instead of “now”)

    PhDs and so-called experts in any industry think that the fancier their language is, the smarter they sound. The real deal is, they think this puts them in an exclusive club, above mere mortals. In my work I often interview people, and it seems that the most successful ones, at the top of their fields, talk like normal people (Richard Branson and Sir Ian McKellen are two examples).

    PhDs are the worst offenders, especially the ones who think their knowledge and ideas are so esoteric that “civilians” can’t comprehend their meaning. It was all I could do not to laugh at one philosophy professor, who was distinctly uncomfortable that I kept putting his high falutin’ verbiage into plain English, and then questioned him. (Reminded me of that scene in The Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain—I am the great and powerful Oz!)

    These kinds of people hate it when I say the equivalent of “The Emperor has no clothes.” I listen to their convoluted crap (and most of them will inevitably make some boo-boo like saying something is “utterly unique”), they think they’re mystifying me, and then I say, “Yeah; I get it,” and proceed to translate what they just said into simple English.
    I hate it when I’m at some conference, listening to so-called experts pontificating on some issue that mystifies them; I realize it’s a huge DUH, I answer the issue in plain English, and they just don’t know what to do! Most of the time they miss the point, and an hour later when someone else says the same thing in dressed-up language, that person is a genius.

    Decades ago, my uncle the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter told me, when he looked at one of my earliest published pieces, “Say it in plain English. Say it once, and it’s said. Don’t roll it around like a snowball trying to make it bigger.” Amen.

    Would you allow me to use your post in my next writing workshop—with your name and blog address right at the top? I wish the entire U.S. educational system had to read it!

    Kris DiLorenzo


  2. I think it is not just about good writing; it is about what is expected of you. If you are a graduate or a post graduate in English, people expect you to have a vocabulary straight out of the Oxford English Dictionary. I have even come across people who were disappointed that despite my being an English honours graduate, I express myself in simple words.

    I also think that complex words are used by people who are not completely at ease with the language because they are under the impression that by doing so they can prove their "mastery" over English.

    Using big words can also be part of a culture. I had once come across an e-mail sent to my friend, a software engineer, by her boss, the contents of which made my head reel. "Don't use 25 words when 5 will do" was an understatement as far as this e-mail was concerned. When I asked my friend why her boss had used English in such a grand manner, she replied that it was just the way they communicated in office.

    All I could do then was to laugh and tell her that they, as software engineers, exploited the language more than I did as a journalist.


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