A Pedant’s Guide to the English Language – Part Three: Clarity
Central to Short Proofing’s remit is promoting clear and concise written English but how do you achieve this?
Like anything, improving your written English comes down to practice. It’s a process of doing, reviewing, redoing: it’s not a fixed and final destination. Along the way, it’s not unusual to feel unsatisfied and even frustrated: even the esteemed William Wordsworth, for instance, was a meticulous revisionist throughout his long literary career (1).
Persistence alone essentially has doing and redoing covered: “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”. The question remains how you might best review your own work. It would be remiss of me to not remind you of the services offered by Short Proofing in this respect. However, there are also measures you can take yourself.
Central to the notion of review is objective reflection. To reflect is to make relative, which means comparing your written work with that of others. By doing so, it becomes apparent what you’ve done well, where and how you might improve. Whilst you obviously can’t copy someone else’s work, you can take inspiration from suitable style models.
Style models can be anything from newspaper articles to novels, perhaps even online blogs... As far as the latter goes, I should underline the importance of ambition. Better to be a poor impersonation of a great writer than a good imitation of an ordinary one. In this very spirit, we turn towards a leading light of modern literature, George Orwell, and his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, which addresses the issue of writing clearly, quite fittingly, in a very transparent manner.
1. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” (2)
There are no extra prizes for complicated words. Reading texts, I often sense that the pressure to sound sophisticated causes many to employ vocabulary they aren’t even sure of themselves. Sounding convincing is about choosing the right word, not the longest or most convoluted. This is not a dumbing down of your writing: you will need appropriate terminology when writing on specialist subjects. However, to confuse your reader with long words is to undo your own purpose, which is to be understood and to make the desired impression upon them.
2. “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Once again, brevity is key. Not only should unnecessarily long words be replaced, but also unnecessary words per se. If you are constructing an argument, these often occur in the form of “hedging” expressions such as “perhaps” or “could be seen to”. We might also consult the following example to illustrate what it means to express yourself concisely:
I’ve also got extensive experience in leading and planning school sporting events, which I have found beneficial for my development, and it’s enhanced my confidence to lead me down my next career path which is teaching.
In reality, this sentence can easily be condensed to something like:
Having organised numerous school sporting events, I am increasingly confident in a leadership role, a stable foundation on which to build my future teaching career.
The point here is not simply that to reduce from 36 to 25 words is to free up much-needed space in an essay or on a CV. Expressing your thoughts as concisely as possible also helps to pinpoint meaning. For example, it’s quite clear in this instance that “enhanced my confidence” and “beneficial for my development” are referring to the same thing.
The conclusion to this rambling sentence, “enhanced my confidence to lead me down my next career path”, is decidedly ambiguous. The image of confidence leading the writer down a path is unclear, the sort of which Orwell laments as a “lack of [metaphorical] precision” in modern writing. This brings us nicely to our third and final lesson, which is more or less the central tenet of Orwell’s essay.
3. “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” (3).
This is ostensibly anti-climax. Obviously, the idea begins in your head and results on the page. But recall our earlier example, where the eagerness to employ snappy phrases, such as “beneficial for my development” and “enhanced my confidence”, occasions jumbled syntax and obfuscates meaning. This is precisely Orwell’s argument; our preconceived ideas of what writing should be cause us to move away from our original ideas. In the end, the train of thought becomes lost to the reader or, at least, without significant mental effort on their part.
Orwell’s solution: first ask yourself the question, “what is it I’m trying to say?” and, thereafter, “how should I best say it?”. This necessitates a level of logical engagement: think about cause and effect (leading the sports events is that which, logically speaking, builds your confidence). When reviewing your written work, especially if you are reading to yourself aloud (which, incidentally, is highly recommendable), you can often become preoccupied with how your work reads or sounds. And yet, that which sounds superficially convincing (personal development etc.) does not always make the most sense.
*If you struggle with this topic and others like it, get in touch with Short Proofing: we are here to help!
1) Stephen Gill explores the diachronic changes in Wordsworth’s literature in his 2011 book, Wordsworth’s Revisitings
2) I’m unsure whether Orwell was a football fan but, if he was, he would have preferred the short and simple stuff to the Hollywood ball.
3) For the tape, the italicised emphasis is my own and not contained in the essay.