Tuesday, March 3, 2009

H.W. Fowler and Global English

As I am writing this, I am looking out over the remnants of yesterday's snowstorm in New York, which even closed the public schools. The park near me handed out free loaner sleds and hot chocolate to children taking advantage of this unexpected free time. I wish they did that when I was a kid!

Anyway, about language:

Henry Watson Fowler was born today in 1858. Best known as the author of Fowler's Modern English Usage, his first publication was actually a translation -- The Works of Lucian of Samosata translated from Greek into English. (The translation is available at the Project Gutenberg website). His next publication, together with his brother Francis, was The King's English in 1906 (available at Google Books, but he is most famous for Modern English Usage, published in 1926 and dedicated to Francis, who died before the work was completed.

Many of Fowler's rules for good writing established in The King's English echo modern-day advice for writers of global English, such as:
· Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
· Prefer the concrete word (or rather expression) to the abstract.
· Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
· Prefer the short word to the long.

I am struck by how often the writers of user manuals and similar documents do not follow these rules. They not only use highly specialized, abstract words, but also join sentences into paragraph-long complex structures. Many of these manuals are:
a. read by non-native English speakers (both immigrants to the U.S. and customers purchasing these products outside the U.S.), and/or
b. translated into languages whose own grammatical structures may complicate such sentences even further.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that many adults find it difficult to give clear and concise directions. While admittedly most people will not write user manuals, being able to provide clear instructions seems a useful life skill. Consider the friend who is trying to tell you how to get to her party, or the roommate trying to explain how to operate his video camera. How many detours did you take on the way to the party? Did you ever get that video camera to work?

Try this assignment from an innovative high school English teacher: "Your house guest is an for an alien from Mars. You are writing instructions for him on how to fix a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The alien has never seen such a sandwich, or its ingredients, and knows nothing of common culinary techniques. Be specific, but concise." Have a few people write these instructions, then follow each others instructions literally. The results can be quite hilarious!

Until next week,


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