Much of the anxiety that I see in foreign students could be avoided if certain principles of writing good English—which nobody ever told them—were explained in advance. We grow up immersed in the cadences and sentence structure of the language we were born into, so we think, “That’s probably what every country considers good writing; they just use different words.” If only!So I asked if I could talk to all of you during orientation week and tell you some of the things my students have found helpful. I once asked a student from Cairo, “What kind of language is Arabic?Tags: Write Research Paper Eating DisordersTo Any Would Be Terrorists ThesisPersonal Statement Prompt 2 HelpSpace Exploration Essay ThesisTypical Business PlanLove And Friendship Essay
I knew I would enjoy that, and I have—I’ve been doing it ever since.
I’m the doctor that students get sent to see if they have a writing problem that their professor thinks I can fix.
What’s considered “good writing” in Spanish is not “good writing” in English.
So what is good English—the language we’re here today to wrestle with?
Those are the damaging habits I want to warn you about today. The English language is derived from two main sources. 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. How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating?Those nouns are rich in feeling, but they have no action in them—no people doing something we can picture.My Spanish-speaking students must be given the bad news that those long sentences will have to be cruelly chopped up into short sentences with short nouns and short active verbs that drive the story forward.That’s when I realized that when foreign students come to me with a linguistic problem it may also be a cultural or a political problem.Now I think it’s lovely that such a decorative language as Arabic exists.Let me read you three typical letters I recently received in the mail. He bought the house almost thirty years ago for his parents, and after their death he lived there with Marilyn Monroe. Get rid of every element in your writing that’s not doing useful work. And here’s Joan Didion, who grew up in California and wrote brilliant magazine pieces about its trashy lifestyle in the 1960s. This passage is from her collection of early magazine pieces, There are always little girls around rock groups—the same little girls who used to hang around saxophone players, girls who lived on the celebrity and power and sex a band projects when it plays—and there are three of them out here this afternoon in Sausalito where the Grateful Dead rehearse.(I keep letters like this and save them in a folder that I call “Bullshit File.”) The first one is from the president of a private club in New York. They are all pretty and two of them still have baby fat and one of them dances by herself with her eyes closed [Somebody said that if I was going to meet some runaways I better pick up some hamburgers and Cokes on the way, so I did, and we are eating them in the Park together, me, Debbie who is fifteen, and Jeff who is sixteen.I try to piece it out like a hieroglyphic, and I ask my wife, “Can you make any sense of this? Two who come to mind are Gay Talese and Joan Didion. There are some baseball trophies and plaques in a small room off Di Maggio’s bedroom, and on his dresser are photographs of Marilyn Monroe, and in the living room downstairs is a small painting of her that Di Maggio likes very much : It reveals only her face and shoulders, and she is wearing a very wide-brimmed sun hat, and there is a soft sweet smile on her lips, an innocent curiosity about her that is the way he saw her and the way he wanted her to be seen by others.” She says, “I have no idea what it means.” Those long Latin usages have so infected everyday language in America that you might well think, “If that’s how people write who are running the country, that’s how I’m supposed to write.” It’s not. Here’s a passage by Talese, from his book of collected magazine pieces, Joe Di Maggio lives with his widowed sister, Marie, in a tan stone house on a quiet residential street near Fisherman’s Wharf. [Notice all those one-syllable words: “the way he saw her and the way he wanted her to be seen.” The sentence is absolutely clean—there’s not one word in it that’s not necessary and not one extra word.In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in –—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.