Rules for English Composition
During a break from reading my students’ term papers this week, I sat down to peruse the text of the proposed draft constitution of the European Union. Consider this a selfless act of dedication to journalistic inquiry. In 27 years of teaching I have seen some dreadful grammar, but the EU draft matches the worst I’ve ever encountered. I realize the document is meant to be multi-lingual, but in reading it I wondered if the authors had invented a whole new dialect of English.
Not that I have any right to judge. To be honest with you, Dave Black speaking on English composition is a bit like Nero speaking on fire safety. Growing up in Hawaii I remember once asking my High School English teacher, “Why should I study English? I’m not planning on going to England.” What do you expect from a guy whose mother tongue was pidgin?
But back to the EU constitution. I’ll bore you with only two examples of what seems to me to be fairly ludicrous diction:
The Union shall have exclusive competence for the conclusion of an international agreement when its conclusion is provided for in a legislative act of the Union, is necessary to enable the Union to exercise its competence internally, or affects an internal Union act.
Under the principle of subsidiary, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence the Union shall act only if and insofar as the objectives of the intended of the intended action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.
Again, who am I to judge? I’m no expert in English style and diction. Nor am I a linguist or a scholar of the history of language. I have dabbled a bit in Greek linguistics, mostly to try to convince my seminary students that the language of the New Testament has architectural precision. I am wary of prescriptive grammars that set out standards of “correct” and “incorrect” usage. Professional linguists argue—correctly, in my opinion—that many usages censured by self-styled grammarians are in fact perfectly reasonable, whether on historical grounds, logical grounds, or both. If you don’t believe me, just see how we translated John 18:4 in the International Standard Version.
There are several writing guides I recommend to my students. H. W. Fowler’s 700-page volume titled Modern English Usage is perhaps the best. This book includes every conceivable stylistic point, arranged alphabetically, and written in an informal tone. Almost every entry has illustrative quotations from real life. However, Fowler is probably too sophisticated for non-native speakers and rank beginners.
Years ago I assembled a list of 20 “rules for English composition” for my students. These are not original to me (a longer list may be found here), but I do ask my students to follow them punctiliously. I offer them to you for your solemn consideration.
1. Always avoid alliteration.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. Avoid clichés like the plague.
4. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
5. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
7. Foreign words and phrases are hardly apropos.
8. Never generalize.
9. Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
10. Don’t be redundant or use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
11. Be more or less specific.
12. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
13. The passive voice is to be avoided.
14. Even if a metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
15. Who needs rhetorical questions?
16. Employ the vernacular.
17. Analogies are like feathers on a snake.
18. Contractions aren’t proper.
19. Eliminate quotations; as Emerson once said: “I hate quotations.”
20. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
These rules are much simpler than those found in Fowler. I tell my students to read them daily and perhaps even keep a copy under their pillow. One never knows when one might need to be able to write English good.
May 28, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.