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.
Five years ago one of your deans at the journalism school, Elizabeth Fishman, asked me if I would be interested in tutoring international students who might need some extra help with their writing.
She knew I had done a lot of traveling in Asia and Africa and other parts of the world where many of you come from.
” 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 adjectives, but I knew what she meant: it’s decorative, it’s ornate, it’s intentionally pleasing.Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.” Believe it or not, this is the language that people in authority in America routinely use—officials in government and business and education and social work and health care.They think those long Latin words make them sound important.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.It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right.Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong.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.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?