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