In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in –—like development and fulfillment.
Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something.
Five years ago one of your deans at the journalism school, Elizabeth Fishman, asked me if I would be interested in tutoring international students who might need some extra help with their writing.
She knew I had done a lot of traveling in Asia and Africa and other parts of the world where many of you come from.
I try to piece it out like a hieroglyphic, and I ask my wife, “Can you make any sense of this? Two who come to mind are Gay Talese and Joan Didion. There are some baseball trophies and plaques in a small room off Di Maggio’s bedroom, and on his dresser are photographs of Marilyn Monroe, and in the living room downstairs is a small painting of her that Di Maggio likes very much : It reveals only her face and shoulders, and she is wearing a very wide-brimmed sun hat, and there is a soft sweet smile on her lips, an innocent curiosity about her that is the way he saw her and the way he wanted her to be seen by others.
” She says, “I have no idea what it means.” Those long Latin usages have so infected everyday language in America that you might well think, “If that’s how people write who are running the country, that’s how I’m supposed to write.” It’s not. Here’s a passage by Talese, from his book of collected magazine pieces, Joe Di Maggio lives with his widowed sister, Marie, in a tan stone house on a quiet residential street near Fisherman’s Wharf. [Notice all those one-syllable words: “the way he saw her and the way he wanted her to be seen.” The sentence is absolutely clean—there’s not one word in it that’s not necessary and not one extra word.Those nouns are rich in feeling, but they have no action in them—no people doing something we can picture.My Spanish-speaking students must be given the bad news that those long sentences will have to be cruelly chopped up into short sentences with short nouns and short active verbs that drive the story forward.It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right.Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong.It’s not as musical as Spanish, or Italian, or French, or as ornamental as Arabic, or as vibrant as some of your native languages.But I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong.It no longer rains in America; your TV weatherman will tell that you we’re experiencing a precipitation probability situation. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.I’m sure all of you, newly arrived in America, have already been driven crazy trying to figure out the instructions for ordering a cell phone or connecting your computer, or applying for a bank loan or a health insurance policy, and you assume that those of us who were born here can understand this stuff. I often receive some totally unintelligible letter from the telephone company or the cable company or the bank. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen. There are many modern journalists I admire for their strong, simple style, whom I could recommend to you as models.I wish could walk around New York and hear people talking in proverbs.But all those adjectives and all that decoration would be the ruin of any journalist trying to write good English. Spanish also comes with a heavy load of beautiful baggage that will smother any journalist writing in English.