Monday 11 March 2013

On good writing

There is a scene in The Wire (Series 5) that stuck in my mind ever since I've seen it. The editor of the local paper, the Baltimore Sun, calls one of his reporters to the main desk. 'You say in your piece that 12 families were evacuated from the building' he says. 'You cant evacuate people, you evacuate buildings. To evacuate people is to give them an enema!'

He is right of course and the little joke reveals the pitfalls of the English language. For me as a foreigner, writing in English has always been a struggle, though an enjoyable one. Learning a language from scratch in your adult years usually means to learn it systematically from the vocabulary and grammar up. And so you try to immerse yourself in rules and regulations of a distant linguistic universe until you realise that, actually, the real learning process is based on phrases and the individual memories of the context in which they are used, rather than putting words together according to grammatical rules.

Perhaps it is the sheer time and effort I had to invest into learning the English language that I now often regret seeing examples of poor linguistic skills. There is of course a close link between cultures and spoken language and I am aware that communities fashion their own dialects that may significantly diverge from 'High English'. However, I do believe that newspapers and journals should be held to the highest linguistic standard. The 'New Yorker' is an excellent example of journalism at its best: short sentences, clear meanings, and a rich vocabulary. It is simply a joy to read.

A Guardian 'blooper'...

In Britain however the picture is mixed. The Guardian, of all journalistic products, is becoming sloppier in the care it takes to eliminate typos and slippery meanings. The main reason may be its slow but steady shift from news to opinion. Over the last decade the paper's columns are increasingly filled with opinion pieces rather than news. What's the difference?

I strongly believe that news items are subjected to a more rigorous method of eliminating ambiguities and unclear language. Libel laws and the commitment of journalists to truth and impartial news production ensure that copy editors and proof readers finecomb every sentence in news items. This also goes for the BBC, where apparently lengthy discussion can ensue about the use of a single term or a word amongst newsroom staff.

Yet, opinion pieces are largely exempt from the strictures of newsreporting. And I suspect communicating personal views and opinions frees writers from what they may feel undue linguistic rigour. But as news outlets increase their reliance on opinion pieces rather than newsreports, the accuracy of our language suffers.

If this line of argument was not clear enough, then I can only apologise and evacuate myself to the next blog entry.

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