Purity and perspicuity in writing

typewriterCredit: Papam

I think it is a given that when it comes to writing, concise communication is key to effectiveness. As our old-school teachers would say, ‘make every word tell’. There is another dimension to writing that I would like to discuss today, concerning the use of foreign words and phrases in writing.

There are two schools of thought – purists of yore harking back to Strunk and White would maintain that English writing should be written in English, without being tarred by foreign imports unless they be accepted in their trusty Oxford/Merriam-websters. On the other hand, there are people like me who believe that, properly deployed, foreign phrases augments an essay and in certain cases, relieves it of clunky and cumbersome sentence structures.

Certainly, effective communication entails knowing your audience, and tailoring your writing accordingly. Good communication that gets to the point should be simple, concise and perspicuous in expression. The use of foreign words assume knowledge of a language other than English and overused, leads to the impression that the writer is conceited, arrogant and writing not so much to inform as he is desperately trying to get people to masturbate his ego. However, knowing your audience does not always mean you must water down your writings. If you are writing for an intelligent crowd, knowing your audience also means elevating your writing as well – to indulge them in a level of sophistry that they are very much a part of.

Purity and perspicuity do not always working in tandem as well. Any construct that depends upon several pillars will necessary find situations in which these pillars are at odds with each other. The ideas of retributive justice and deterrence clashes against rehabilitation in capital punishment, and patient autonomy is balanced against the principle of non-maleficence (“do no harm”) in discussions of euthanasia. So too, when it comes to writing in English.

Let’s take a fairly common example – je ne sais quoi. It is a short, delightful French term that denotes an indescribable quality, perfect for those moments when you encounter a situation, or an enigma that evokes a feeling, a sense of unease and strangeness that you can’t quite put a finger to. English has no close equivalent – to say “it was a certain indescribable feeling that could not be properly described” is very cumbersome and while “can’t put a finger on” might suffice, je ne sais quoi has a slight, whimsical note to it and a good writer, I think, needs to be sensitive to these slight nuances and use them accordingly.

There are also times when there are perfect English equivalents, but where you’ll want to use a foreign equivalent instead. Let’s say for some very odd reasons you’ll like to publicize your sexcapades on your blog, and perhaps it wasn’t one of those quick-and-dirty shtups on a staircase in some dingy building. Saying you had a 69 on the bed in your bachelor’s pad (you dirty dog!) would certainly bring the point across, but it’s lacking a little something, so what’s a rake like you to do?

Once again, French to the rescue! Saying you “engaged in a bit of soixante-neuf on a lazy sunday afternoon before moving on to the main course” adds a softer, coy quality to the description, although it certainly doesn’t make the hypothetical you any less of a douche for wanting to publicize it in the first place. I’m very sure there are better, family-friendlier examples for this, and I am deeply sorry that my impoverished and debauched mind can do no better.

This is not a license to use foreign words with wild abandon, of course. The most important take-home message is to understand that the language is alive, and we employ words, sentences and paragraphs as a means to convey our complex feelings with all its nuances and subtleties. Perhaps in a few decades the rules concerning the use of language may change, and German might replace French as the new romantic language, but the richness and expressiveness of the individual will always be constant. Or as the French would say, plus ça change.

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