Friday, April 06, 2007

A unique child delivered of a unique mother

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling writes:

Speaking for myself, and probably for most of the people likely to read this as well, there is little more rewarding than indulging in skillful use of the English language. Be it the written word or on screen or on the radio, observing someone with mastery of the enormous variety of skills that can be used with our language, alliterations, cliches, double entendres, dangling participles...

Stephen Fry is a favourite of mine, hell I'll even watch the Baftas if he's hosting just for his vignettes. Clive James, hat tip Paul, is another. Within the Brain Stab fold, Apathy Jack toils each day to bring out appreciation for, and ability with English from his "plastics". And it is to Apathy Jack, or rather his progeny, that the following is directed - though the following is good advice to all.

The aforementioned Mr James, in his book "Unreliable Memoirs", explains in one brief sentence just what Good English is, and in a few more just how he came to realise it. Also serving as a comforting reminder that The Muses for Clive James did not come naturally but had to be worked at just like for the rest of us. The important bits are in bold below, I'm just quoting a bit more for indulgence.

"The need to be approved of aided my progress, if progress it was. I never stopped admiring the talent of Spencer and Keith Cameron, but gradually at first, and then quicker all the time, my own activities took a different course. The desire to amuse overcame the desire to shock. By my second year I was already writing a good proportion of the Revue, and by my third year I was writing almost half of it. Against my will but according to my instincts, I recognised that when I mimicked Spencer's mannerisms I made no connection with the audience, and that when what I wrote was my own idea, the audience laughed. I tried to hold them in contempt for that, but could not quite succeed. So I tried to hold myself in contempt instead, but could not quite succeed at that either. It was already occuring to me that in these matters practice might be wiser than theory."

"My year at the Herald can be briefly recounted. The editor of the Saturday magazine page was a veteran journalist called Leicester Cotton. He was a sweet man whose days of adventure were long behind. We shared a partitioned-off cubicle just big enough to hold two desks. While he got on with choosing the serials and book excerpts which would fill the main part of the page, it was my part of the task to rewrite all those unsolicited contributions which might just make a piece. All I had to do was change everything in them and they would be fine. apart from the invaluable parsing lessons at school, these months doing rewrites were probably the best practical training I ever received. Characteristically I failed to realise it at first. But gradually the sheer weight of negative evidence began to convince me that writing is essentially a matter of saying things in the right order. It certainly has little to do with the creative urge per se. Invariably the most prolific contributors were the ones who could not write a sentence without saying the opposite of what they meant. One man, a resident in Woy Woy, sent us a new novel every month. Each novel took the form of twenty thick exercise books held together in a bundle. Each exercise book was full to the brim with neat handwriting. The man must have written more compulsively than Enid Blyton, who at least stopped for the occasional meal. Unlike Enid Blyton, however, he could not write even a single phrase that made any sense at all."

That good effective writing, and for that read good effective communication, is simply the art of saying what you want to say in the right order and in your own style might seem blindingly obvious, but it took Clive James well into university and after to realise it. (Another important point is the one about the "prolific". The most important tool that I use is a rule of George Orwell's, basically, If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.)

For those who like good English, there is more Stephen Fry at the and. for those who don't, here's Kane Bunce

We hear all the time that global warming is happening and that not cutting carbon emissions will hurt us economically. But will it really do so? I argue that it is the other way around. Capping carbon emissions will hurt the economy, as I will demonstrate. But before I do that, I must explain why it will hurt the economy.


PC said...

Very good, Eric. And Stephen. :-)

HORansome said...

I'm not sure why you singled out Kane's post as a (presumably) good example of skillful English use. If he started with 'We hear all the time that not capping carbon emissions will hurt us economically. But will it really do so?' then the rest of the tirade seems somewhat decently written, but as he begins with 'We hear all the time that global warming is happening' the rest of his post reads like a red herring.

Ms Klake said...

I remember the advice to cut out unnecessary words, but rarely adhere to it. It was great for cutting down word counts on uni essays, but that was about it. I get no pleasure from writing the way I'm supposed to. Which is probably why I'm a bad writer, but so long as I'm enjoying myself I'm not really caring.

Paul said...

"Capping carbon emissions will hurt the economy, as I will demonstrate. But before I do that, I must explain why it will hurt the economy."

I don't think Eric was using this passage to demonstrate good English.