How to use English well

An incident in my final year at the university sets the tone for this week’s article. I remember writing a term paper once and handing it in to my English professor.

An incident in my final year at the university sets the tone for this week’s article. I remember writing a term paper once and handing it in to my English professor.

Since I was writing to an authority on African Linguistics I thought it my stage to impress. So, like the cadences of an elaborate symphony, I wrote long sentences and employed all the jargon I could find.

The professor gave me my due. I got the A, but with a rejoinder. At the bottom of the last page he wrote in bright red ink: ‘Your essay would have read much better had you used simpler words and shorter sentences’.

That punctured me, like a thumb tack to a balloon. My experience is not unique. English professors do come from a blunter stock. In spite of that, they make a very basic point.

It should be in our interest as scholars to use language to convey meaning, not to hide it. Often, we get caught up in the use of old and tired expressions.

We do that because they are easy, don’t require too much thought and save us the trouble of using speech that is picturesque, to borrow from a Reader’s Digest phrase. 

Central to accurate expression in any language, is the closeness which words come to their intended meaning. A writer today has a lot of choice in choosing which word to use for any discourse.

Members of what is called the Plain English movement will insist that writers should be true to the Saxon roots of English. I do not want to take sides, since translators who work between English and other European languages will often tell you that Latinate words are better off when translating into French, Spanish and Italian.

So what then? A good writer begins by being a good reader. From the work of writers such William Shakespeare or Somerset Maugham one discovers that these men were very literate.

Many of their works allude to other passages, especially from the Bible. They also draw from the mythology of the ancient Greeks. The corollary? Begin today by befriending your local librarian!

As you read, look for unique expressions. Also look for new metaphors, and look for opportunities to use them. The opportunities will present themselves, whether at school, or while presenting a speech or a play. Let the situation dictate which word conveys the meaning best.

As you write, consciously look for surrounding objects that can provide a source of new metaphors. This will require time spent contemplating your immediate environment.

The reasons why we recognize great writers and thinkers, is because they were able to elevate their immediate environments into works of art.

What stands out about writers like that is their ability to describe the range of human emotions, which as one reads, it becomes easy to see your own reflection in one or more of the characters.

It is the tendency in Modern English to move away from concreteness. To give an example, closer home of this tendency is the phrase ‘terminological inexactitude’ used in the Kenyan Parliament.

It simply means that an MP has told a lie. When you are about to write, whether your blog, e-mail or a response to favourite newspaper, ask the following questions, What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Never use idiom that you are used to seeing in print. If you cannot think up of a fresh way of saying that something is less than satisfactory, don’t write that it leaves too much to be desired.

Don’t suffer if you can bear, don’t bear in mind if you can think. Construct sentences that are appropriately short for the subject matter.

For your writing to have power, it has to create clear visual images in the mind. If you can learn to use English words, not to hide your intentions, but to make them plain and vivid, then can it be said that you have learnt to use English well.

Words by John Weru,
Principal, Virunga Communication Centre,