Muddle is a habit easily learnt but hard to dispel. Like an unclaimed public fart, they are endured. Temporary relief for the reading breath from their noisome presence is provided by editorial room fresheners. But bad English intake, the real cause, is a cultivated addiction, effecting dense and lasting damage.
Muddle, like goodwill or accidents, manifest when least expected.
Notwithstanding the fact that there is concerted effort in regard to promote simple English at our earliest convenience in the majority of our writing instances, it is my opinion that in view of the fact that from an early date in our education that spans for a considerable period of time we strive to learn writing only with Victorian bureaucratese swearing by our Wren and Martins to elucidate our mental outpourings to the fullest possible extent, the question as to we will ever write to communicate in a simple, understandable way devoid of muddle and clutter remains to be answered in a positive manner.
That paragraph means: Promoting simple written English is welcome, but I think until we remove Victorian bureaucratese from our early education, writing without clutter is impossible.
But muddle is one thing while teenage speak is another, which could very well be seen at the opposite end of the communication spectrum. Emma Thompson felt outraged against teen-speak, when she visited her alma mater. After hearing her juniors speak, she said
‘We have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal human freedom and power.
‘I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing their “likes” and “innits?” and “it ain’ts”, which drives me insane.
‘I told them, “Just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid”.’
For that take she has been nominated for 2010 Plain English campaign awards – under both the good and bad categories of the award apparently.
But the relevant point is — as John Humphrys writes in a follow up article — it is not teen-speak that is the chief concern. Yes, teens may choose to use only about 800 English words in their daily speech; but they anyway choose to do it. And teens should eventually grow out of it. But into what?
The real concern is, they would grow into the muddle filled writing style or speech that we hold on to. Especially in India, as Jyoti Sanyal, author of Indlish, pointed out:
[…] Many Indians unfortunately equate ‘impressive’ English with incomprehensible English. Clumsy Victorian English hangs like a dead albatross around each educated Indian’s neck. Our feudal culture frowns on directness of expression. Indian English is often no more than an Indian language in disguise.
[…] unlike formal written Indian languages that veered towards Sanskrit and shunned regional languages and dialects, written English began as a written dialect (i.e. the written form was no different from everyday speech).
[…] We Indians got baniya English from East India Company merchants, kerani/khajanchi English from clerks during the Raj days, bloated literary Victorian English from our universities.
That hideous combination gave us a medium unsuitable for any human interaction. We need to reject this repulsive Indlish and bring in the lively language that English is. We must understand that UNLIKE our Sanskritised regional languages,
*written English emulates speech
*written English resists formalism
According to Paul W. Merrill, as he wrote in The Principles of Poor
Writing, The Scientific Monthly, 64, Jan 1974, the Tenets of Bad Writing are
1) ignore the reader 2) be pompous in words and vague in expression 3)
William Zinser in “On Writing Well” indicates muddle arises because of fuzzy thinking, vagueness, clutter and faulty word arrangement. Clutter, he writes, manifest as circumlocution, pleonasm, redundancy and tautology.
Circumlocution is writing “repress the instantaneous motions of merriment” instead of “stop laughing” or perceiving an epistle instead of writing a letter, all happening at this point of time instead of now. Pleonasm is repeating ideas with unnecessary words. Examples include advance planning, repeat again, end product, final outcome, return back. Redundancy
is writing weather condition instead of weather, crime situation instead of crime.
How to curb muddle in our writing? I don’t know. Practicing the right way, helps. What is the right way? George Orwell writes
Writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words that have already been set in order by someone else, and making the result presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not unjustifiable assumption that… than to say I think.
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word, if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
An apparently author-less little book, What not to write is a gem written by Kay Sayce. It is a guide to the Dos and Don’ts of good English. As the blurb says, a must for every desk. Most of the book is on grammar and style organized from A to Z (entry on the correct use of zero-sum-game). There are helpful tips on how to prepare a document.
Fog Index for writing, is conceived by Mr. Gunning in 1952. From that FI Wikipedia page we gather,
If a passage has a fog index of 12, it has the reading level of a US high school senior (which is around 18 years old). […] Texts that are designed for a wide audience generally require a fog index of less than 12. Texts that require a close-to-universal understanding generally require an index of less than 8.
Universal understanding means, texts like, Start, Restart, Thanks for your patience, Don’t Panic…
Fog Index is a fair measure of readability of written text. Mind it, readability, not clarity or correctness of thought. That has to come from within the writer.