Monthly Archives: January 2013

Differences in Language

For the last year I have been working as a professional copy-editor. Specifically I have been working closely with a major university, and one of the foreign language departments there, where most of the professors are not native speakers of English.

My job has been to review prospectuses, research proposals, emails, literary reviews, and presently the doctoral thesis of a foreign politician living abroad, to edit these documents and correct them for anything from basic spelling and grammatical issues, to adapting them to a particular publishing style (for instance the Chicago Manual of Style, or The American Psychiatric Association Style Book‘s standard.

From these experiences I have noticed certain reoccurring attributes of intellectuals from abroad, which is a tendency toward what we American wordsmiths would call wordiness and excessive verbosity. In the case of Turkish writers, for example, copyists often intentionally belabor their arguments with complicated sentence structures, and difficult vocabulary where much less difficult explanations or arguments could easily suffice. In American writing this kind of purposeful verbosity is rare except in the cases of highly technical fields where such jargon is almost unavoidable. To these Turkish writers being difficult to understand is a hallmark of intellectual achievement. Such a thing would never be accepted in American intellectual circles, where it is generally believed that the most knowledgeable people are able to say things in such a way that anyone can derive the essential meaning.

Of course, coming up in the American school of thought, I have always felt that the goal of writers of technical prose or of essayists, is to communicate the message in the most efficient method possible while retaining maximum clarity, and maximum transparency. Excessive verbosity seems to work against all of those goals.

But reconsidering, I have began to entertain the possibility that the American love of literary minimalism is merely a byproduct of our general tendency toward anti-intellectualism. The typical American cannot fully utilize simple elements of our language, including understanding basic punctuation, including the distinction between the colon and the semi-colon, and being able to apply those devices in their prose. Most of us would be hard pressed to understand what makes a sentence passive, what a prepositional phrase is, what part of the sentence is the preposition and what part is the subject, or many other fundamental elements of our language. It is no wonder that we get nervous in the face of a forty word sentence, or that we prefer our words under three syllables if at all possible.

But, the Minimalist in me of course rejects that idea. After all, as members of an internet forum where frequent debate occurs, we are no strangers to those who, failing to find solid footing with a valid argumentative stance, frequently fling themselves into further and further esoterica, in the obvious hope that nobody will be able to follow them into the opaque depths of increasingly obscure images. If you want to be verbose you can write poems or fiction that nobody will bother to read, not attempt to make a political argument or some kind of appeal meant for the greater population! That kind of willful ostentation is just a form of self aggrandizement, which works against the objective of creating an effective and persuasive argument!

Nevertheless, my editorial spirit is torn. What do you think? Do we practice stylistic minimalism in the name of clarity, or is it just that we think and write for an audience of perpetual eight graders? Are these foreigners indeed verbose literary masters, or are they puffed-up pompous pee-cocks hoping nobody will be able to penetrate the layers of muddy metaphor in order to propose a possible counter argument – in short, cowards slinking around in the vestments of poets – and knock them off of their intellectual high-horses?