Writing English as a First Language

Some writing is bland because it does not take chances. Other writing is bland because of poor technique.

William Zinsser deals with the second in this talk to international students in the Columbia University journalism school: “Writing English as a Second Language.”

Actually, writing—as opposed to speaking—is a “second language.” That is why it must be learned even by native speakers.

Here he is on bureaucratese—and translating bureaucratese into English is something every reporter must do.

First, a little history. The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in –ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in –ent—like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”

Believe it or not, this is the language that people in authority in America routinely use—officials in government and business and education and social work and health care. They think those long Latin words make them sound important. It no longer rains in America; your TV weatherman will tell that you we’re experiencing a precipitation probability situation.

He almost sounds like some Norse reconstructionist Pagan bashing the “soft Mediterranean cultures” there, doesn’t he.

But don’t blame the Roman Empire. Blame the writers of the 16th-19th centuries who imported Latin terms because they sounded grander and because they had all studied Latin in school.

Write with Anglo-Saxon action verbs as much as possible, and your writing will be better. You can deposit that knowledge with certainty in your financial institution take it to the bank.

4 thoughts on “Writing English as a First Language

  1. Apuleius Platonicus

    If you want to (or, better yet, need to) get your message across, use Germanic derived words.

    English speakers do not yell "assistance!!" when we are injured. We all yell for "HELP!!!"

    Also people should learn Latin and study the writing of Seneca to see that it really is possible to write clearly and forcefully in a Romance language.

  2. Hlin

    Alas, it's still Latin: "fix" comes from L. fixus, "money" from L. moneta, and "problem" from L. problema

  3. Denis

    You too, Bru.., eh, Chas! Just a reminder: if you want to get rid of Latin word you'll have to get rid of most of the English vocabulary. Look at Apuleus' message and try to calculate how many Latin word he actually used, while discouraging others from doing the same.

  4. Chas S. Clifton

    Read the last paragraph again, Denis.

    I do not recommend getting rid of Latinate words (although that has been tried).

    That would be impossible, especially when you consider that part of the vocabulary derived from Old French, as opposed to later borrowings by learned writers.

    I do recommend using Germanic verbs when possible and avoiding bureaucratese.

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