28 March, 2008

Writing Styles in English

If you are a lover of vocabulary, English is the best language for you. It has borrowed words from many other languages, and has a wide availability of resources to help you if you get stuck, and if you can't find a word fit for the situation, there are phrases, idioms and quotes to boot.

My friend Anne recently complained on her blog about my insistence on avoiding the use of "big words" while writing. While I don't claim to be (and am not) an expert on writing styles, I do have my own view on the subject. It is just personal opinion, mind you... it formed as a result of my comfort (or the lack of it) while reading essays written in various styles.

When I was in school, the elite of my classmates used to write essays that started like (suppose it's an essay on "A typical classroom") :

Every classroom is an eclectic mix of the serious, the impish and the in-betweens. Teachers are not without their quirks and idiosyncrasies either.

It seemed to be a bit, um, silly that an ordinary essay about an ordinary classroom demanded such a pompous (ehm, no offense) start. Unfortunately, this guaranteed marks from the impressed teacher, so the students stuck to it. My essay would've started like this (in the unusual situation that I had the exact same thoughts)

There are many kinds of students: the studious (teacher's pets, first bench), the uninterested (last bench, or outside the class), and the in-betweens. The teachers are of various breeds too.

Of course, the earlier two lines are much more poetic then these two, which are, if you have an unusually strong sense of humour, merely amusing. But I wonder, how poetic is it to run to the dictionary every two sentences?

Herein lies my main point. If you are writing chiefly to communicate your opinion to other people (which is what blogging comprises), the use of big words is unnecessary, and even contrary to the main purpose: to communicate you views and opinions in the clearest and nicest way possible. That does not mean using only monosyllabic words: it just means the reader shouldn't have to consult the dictionary every so often.

One more argument that can be made for using big words is that they make the writing seem much more important and official. However, avoiding them would make the writing more accessible, I think.

There are other types of writing, though, whose main purpose is not to communicate opinions, but to tell a story, or to just show off your literary prowess. In telling a story, what may be required is to illustrate the situation as closely as possibly. For that, the writer may employ some words which may not be in the common vocabulary, but describe the situation perfectly with the requisite beauty or grandeur (or flashiness). In poetry, of course, one not only has to transmit the beauty or irony, but also do it in the shortest and most elegant possible way. There is no way out but by using big words.

I'd like to show you an example of an essay (whose primary purpose is communication) written both ways:

A teacher is to a subject what a conductor is to scrolls of a Bach concerto. Teachers hold the reins that can metamorphose the dull into the fascinating or vice-versa. And when pupils are compelled to listen to less-appealing lectures, they are likely to get prejudiced against the subject itself. For example, I still get a cold, clammy fear when I hear ‘Differentiating with respect to’.


Ever been to a calculus class where the teacher talked on and on in monotones and half the students were busy drawing sketches of the teacher? A teacher has to be engaging. It's his/her duty to make the students understand, and love the subject. Otherwise the students (and I, personally) would rather be elsewhere. We have a right to, don't we?

I think the first is a very elegantly written paragraph, but the second gets the point across better. I must confess, if this weren't just an essay about classroom attendance, but something about, say, global warming, the former would be the way to go, because there we would have to convey an idea which is alien to the readers, and to illustrate it properly would require suitable words.

Note: The elegant-style lines are taken from Anne's essay on Classroom Attendance. I like her writing (it's smooth, and it flows well), but with qualifications. ;)

This is MY point of view, MY opinion. I'd like to hear yours too, and I have a fear you'll disagree with me. I'm ready to discuss it, debate it.

I'll conclude with a quote from Bertrand Russell's "How I write":

Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology: "Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behaviour-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner". Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: "All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing." This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.


  1. Hmm...Okay I'm going to forget I'm Anne and become unbiased. I like your version of my classroom essay much more than mine.

    In defence, I'd like to say that this wasn't a topic I was particularly interested in talking about. When that happens, I generally start searching for long words. Not a justification, I agree. But that's the truth.

    Also, I'll tell you my teachers often told me to tone down my essays. They were incredible guides.

    Frankly, I don't know what to conclude. I love my writing when it's regarding what I want to write. I don't feel that simple words satisfy my thirst for expression in such cases.

  2. Can I see some references where it says that English has the maximum (you mean largest?) number of words in any language?
    I have heard many Arabs claim this about Arabic, so I have delved into it a bit, and it is notoriously hard to actually measure numbers of words in a language. I found that very counterintuitive, but there it is.

    Liked the essay. There are obviously many more styles, and it's not styles that want to get things across, but the people using them, said the nitpicker.

    I wish you would write like that when chatting to me (no wannas and lemmes, hooray) ;-)

  3. Ok, I discovered that one cannot correctly measure the number of words in any language, so I removed the "largest number of words" sentence. :)

  4. Well, in my experience 'over-use of the thesaurus' as my teachers used to call it, just makes writing ridiculous, and if any teacher recommends it they don't deserve to be one!
    That being said, while you should always keep your audience in mind, you should never bury the meaning of what you want to say in some indecipherable mass of words that are all 9 syllables long! Neither should you 'dumb down' everything you say to such an extent that it demeans you, your reader and fails to fully express what you wanted to convey!
    A major source of new words to anyone's vocabulary is what they read. If everyone refrained from using words they felt others couldn't deal with then everyone would talk like a 10 year-old and we wouldn't have some of the most beautiful writing in the world.
    Also the sole purpose of writing is not simply to convey a message, it is also to entertain, to inform, to educate. You cannot use a 'general rule' as to the type of language appropriate to be used in all situations. Words are a tool. They can be used to confront or console, they can imbue a piece of writing with any and every emotion, they are used to communicate everything from our innermost feelings to how to use a toaster! And as such should (based on the audience, purpose and form of the piece) be used at the author's discretion, and not governed by some unwritten rules.

    Sorry for the essay, I needed to vent after a busy week at uni...

    Ps. That classroom essay sounded like a pretty entertaining satire to me. Pompous language can be a VERY powerful writing tool ;)