No Proverbs, Please


Two Augusts ago I gave a talk about writing to the incoming class of foreign students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. They were roughly 80 young men and women, newly arrived from a multitude of countries—Bhutan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Uzbekistan—about to be plunged into the harsh reality of writing clearly and comfortably in a language very different from their own. I knew the magnitude of that task; I tutored many of their predecessors in previous classes at the journalism school, trying to ease them over the shoals of bewildering syntax, linear narrative construction, and high anxiety. In my talk I wanted to tell the new crop of foreign students what problems they would encounter.

I began by posing a question: “What is good writing?” It depends, I said, on what country we’re from. We all know what’s “good writing” in our own country. 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.”

I once asked a student from Cairo, “What kind of language is Arabic?” I was trying to put myself into her mental process of switching from Arabic to English. She said, “It’s all adjectives.” Well, of course it’s not all adjectives, but I knew what she meant: it’s decorative, it’s ornate, it’s intentionally pleasing.

Another Egyptian student, when I asked him about Arabic, said, “It’s all proverbs. We talk in proverbs. People say things like ‘What you are seeking is also seeking you.’” He pointed out that Arabic is full of courtesy and deference, some of which is rooted in fear of the government. “You never know who’s listening,” he said, “so it doesn’t hurt to be polite. Don’t forget—we go back to the pharaohs.” That’s when I realized that when foreign students come to me with a language problem it is often a cultural or a political problem.

I think it’s lovely that such a decorative language as Arabic exists; I wish I could walk around New York and hear people talking in proverbs. But all those adjectives and all that decoration would be the ruin of a journalist trying to write in plain English about the events and issues of the day.

Spanish also comes with a heavy load of beautiful baggage that would smother a journalist writing in English. The Spanish language is a national treasure, justly prized by Spanish-speaking people. But what makes it a national treasure is its long sentences and melodious long nouns that express a general idea. Those nouns are rich in emotion, but they have no action in them—no people doing something that we can picture—something that we ourselves might do. Aspiring journalists from Spanish-speaking countries must be given the bad news that all those long abstract sentences will have to be cruelly chopped up into short sentences with short nouns and active verbs that drive the narrative forward. “Good writing” in Spanish is not necessarily “good writing” in English.

So what is good English? It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of the other languages that the foreign students at Columbia grew up with. But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have a precise shade of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to the ordinary reader in good English. If it’s used right. But that’s a longer story, and in the rest of my talk I tried to tell it.

To read the full text, “Writing English as a Second Language,” click here.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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