Book 2: “Plain English”, Blamires

Communication is amazing. The concept of taking something from my mind and encoding it to create something similar in the minds of the encodement’s audience is, frankly, remarkable. Yet we daily engage in these transactions without a second thought as we speak, read and write. These encodements can be less precise and more fluid (think poetry, painting or dance), but the premise remains.

Of these media, writing is perhaps the one most suited to precise, unambiguous communication. The time that can go into writing and its enduring nature both establish the written word as a sturdy means of expression. Sadly, however, as Harry Blamires suggests in his book, “Plain English”, people today communicate lazily, imprecisely, and incorrectly. Blamires is not a prescriptivist: he feels that the disadvantage of poor writing is simply the loss of effectiveness in communication.

“Plain English” gives innumerable examples of sentences run amok, participles left dangling, and meaning lost under an avalanche of waffle. While these examples are useful, particular to highlight one’s pet peeves or close open questions about grammar, the book’s implicit philosophy is far more valuable. This philosophy is simply that it pays to think twice about whether what one writes means what one intends.

This lesson shouldn’t be a hard one to learn. The art of writing requires one to think about the effect that the words should have, and to choose and craft accordingly. Regrettably, if Hemingway was shooting landscapes with a Canon 5D Mk II, many of those today responsible for writing widely-read content (journalists, speechwriters, radio personalities) are doing little more than using a $69 digital camera from the Warehouse to snap pictures of their drunk friends. The consequence of this poor expression is at worst a loss of meaning, an inability to fathom the writer’s intent. More commonly, the reader is able to discern the meaning, but is left with a discomfort from the extra effort required.

A particular example that strikes me is the misplacement of ‘only’ in sentences these days. “Grammar Girl”, writing online about common grammatical misconceptions, errs herself in writing “…it’s a run-on sentence even though it only has six words.” This sentence is intelligible. Nevertheless, the structure relates ‘only’ to ‘has’ to suggest that the sentence only has six words, that it doesn’t contain or include six words. The meaning would be clearer if the sentence were structured “…it’s a run-on sentence even though it has only six words.” The placement of ‘only’ immediately before the term it is altering is helpful for the reader.

Having read “Plain English”, I’m more aware of when I’m waffling and taking too long to say what I mean. I’m also more aware of the craft of constructing a sentence to make its meaning transparent. This book has made me think more deeply about what I read and about what I write, and it’s empowered me to create communication that is clearer and more intelligible. To put it simply, it has made me a better writer.

Rating: 4/5

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