Writing Good English
January 18, 2010 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Writing English as a Second Language: A talk by William Zinsser to foreign students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism | The American Scholar

Zinsser on his book On Writing Well, on writing a memoir, and on his time at the Herald Tribune.
posted by AceRock (12 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I liked this when I ran across it on Arts and Letters Daily, but it is a little too Strunk-and-Whitish for me. Using simple one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words is not a bad jumping-off point for writing instruction, but English has a treasure trove of multi-syllabic words, many of them from the Romance languages versus the Germanic languages. It would be criminal to not use these in a well-written piece of prose, as they add not only nuances of meaning but indispensable variety of rhythm to one's sentences.

Of course, if he is simply advising business students to avoid business/legal jargon (and he provides a plethora of example of bad prose, usually with the suffix "-ize,") than he is giving good advice.
posted by kozad at 10:48 AM on January 18, 2010

Great guy. He's also a music writer focussing on pop and showtunes of the early to mid 20th century and plays piano with a sax guy at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village a few times each year.
posted by rhizome at 10:55 AM on January 18, 2010

Using simple one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words is not a bad jumping-off point for writing instruction, but English has a treasure trove of multi-syllabic words, many of them from the Romance languages versus the Germanic languages. It would be criminal to not use these in a well-written piece of prose, as they add not only nuances of meaning but indispensable variety of rhythm to one's sentences.

This is entirely true, but remember: he's not teaching native speakers to write prose, he's teaching ESL students to be journalists. Nothing about that makes "a treasure trove of multi-syllabic words" a good idea. I think his advice has a rather narrow scope, but it does seem to be spot-on for non-native speakers and for journalists.
posted by vorfeed at 11:33 AM on January 18, 2010

Thanks for the article! I've sent it to a few of my foreign friends who are studying English in college.
posted by mdrosen at 12:51 PM on January 18, 2010

This speech seems incredibly condescending for one given to adult students who have already completed tertiary studies in their own countries.

That the speech was so low on actual content (resorting mostly to motherly advice, tired straw-men, and facile over-simplifications) is understandable, but I thought the ease which with Zinsser so casually otherises his students to be a bit over-the-top.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:14 PM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have read Zinsser's On Writing Well and only wish that I had the wherewithal to consistently use the ideas that he presents therein. Maybe he needs to write a book On Following Through Well On Writing Well.
posted by bz at 1:18 PM on January 18, 2010

What a condescending, simplistic piece, coming from someone who ought to (and whose books show that he does) know better. Even granting that Zinsser's audience might need this advice, the piece doesn't have anything to do with writing well — it's a speech entirely about how to write less badly.

And then there's this:

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.

It's not such a bad idea to tell student writers to prefer plain Anglo-Saxon words rather than Latinate polysyllables in modern English. But Zinsser seems to have repeated this college-freshman heuristic formula so many times that he's come to believe it as a historical truth, to think that the language of Beowulf is somehow inherently "plainer" than that of Caesar. This is lunacy.
posted by RogerB at 2:28 PM on January 18, 2010

I have to admit this article strongly rankled me, for a number of reasons, including the condescension which others here have noted. It also seems to deal in heavy linguistic projection, setting the "infinitely old" (really?) Anglo-Saxon words, presumably handed down from manly druids, in opposition to the "florid", bureaucratic Latin words that apparently have no purpose and only gained currency in order to make English communication miserable. Choosing what words to use is always a trade-off; longer words might make a sentence more gummy but they often also add shades of distinction that wouldn't be otherwise available. There's a lot to be said for simplicity, but it can't be simply boiled down to an Anglo-Saxon vs. Latinate cagematch. The hard truth is that a sentence has to be considered on a case-by-case basis, and not reduced to etymological calculus. I wonder if other readers felt as I did, that the examples Zissner provided were often well-written, but not necessarily for the reasons he was pushing. Interestingly, despite his hatred for multi-syllabic words, he seems to have no problem with rather convoluted nests of commas and clauses, which are made even less parsable by their nearly uniform monosyllabicity.
posted by threeants at 2:42 PM on January 18, 2010

Is there a comprehensive list of Anglo-Saxon vs Latinate words somewhere?
posted by Carius at 5:17 PM on January 18, 2010

I do fathom the writer is asking us to forsake the use of inkhorn words from outlandish tongues and uphold the makeuse of comely anglish words in all our bookcraft. Forsooth.
posted by Pranksome Quaine at 3:08 AM on January 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

wht r u tltkng bout?isn't aLL @jrnlism gnna b typd lke ths in the #futchÜr. /serious(bit).ly.ad infinitum, the need also, sometimes for, without only, a bit of style, the rhythm of time, had not been, developed or shown, here by me, as shown, by this sentence.

In seriousness, many good points are made in the articles, when thinking in different languages, or for non English speakers who are learning new languages, I have found that I sometimes confuse myself with my (from birth) English syntax, especially when moving from Arabic to English, my syntax goes all to jumbles, and I find myself feeling like I use a Lot of extra connecting words in my English after a session of thinking in Arabic, ideas are less fluid to explain in english, and I end up using a lot of modifiers, clauses, and wishing my English could be more expressive (less so of a jolt with transferring between French and English)... I feel for the pain of someone coming into English without having had it since birth (in addition to having to try and catch up with all of the historical weight and added meanings that words have within each culture's additions to English; if I was going the opposite way, from a different language to English, I am pretty certain that it would be HARD!(with all caps) And this article speaks to that, and I like it, thank you for posting this, go American Scholar.

We all know what’s considered “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.” If only! 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.”

Also this.

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. -second article that has what I see as fibers of Levi-Strauss approved material.
(however, I personally don't see these things as needing to be considered "problems"... it sucks when English gets taken over by the "gotta do it proper like" squad headed up by Mr. Euro-centrist Hitchens in his recent article about how "Black people" use "nome sane" (linked on MF now) and how this is just UNACCEPTABLE to him, as he can't be proud that English is an evolving language, and that English is getting NEW forms of linking of ideas... people who are good at linguistics are over in the thread explaining what I cannot express myself very well at all.
I guess I just think we need to listen to peoples voices, even if they don't speak in some pre-set mode that we know how to decipher well, or is more comfortable to us... if we discount people for their speech patterns, we are losing out in the long run. We will miss out on so many good ideas.
posted by infinite intimation at 3:09 PM on January 21, 2010

This piece from Forbes on political rhetoric, though generally pretty dumb, contains a nice additional point about Zinsser's "strangling" Latin:

This is, to use an apt Latinism, illiterate. "Anglo Saxon" is itself derived from Latin, but so are the words "derived," "Latin," "history," "sources," "florid," "ancient," "Rome," "plain," "Europe," "enemy," "strangle," and "suffocate"--sometimes with Old French as an intermediary. In fact, the more Zinsser fulminates against the "vague concepts" and "abstract ideas" of Latin, the more Latin and other foreign-borne words he uses.
posted by RogerB at 2:28 PM on January 23, 2010

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