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27 May 2013

Mistakes to avoid in English #1: writing like a Russian professor

Einstein: five words that changed the world
It has become fairly widely accepted that if Russia wants one of its universities to break into the world’s top 200, its academics will have to get used to communicating in the international language of scholarship, which is English. In Einstein’s day it was German, at least in the scientific world, but the combined efforts of Hitler and Henry Ford, respectively, destroyed German science and made the English-speaking world both rich and mobile. Though that happened three-quarters of a century ago, nothing has happened since to change the situation that resulted. So English it is—if you want to get ahead in academia.
     But this is not just a question of being able to write the language well, it is also a question of being able to think in an English-speaking way on paper. That means three main things: (1) subject, verb, object, generally in that order; (2) short sentences with as few subordinate clauses as possible; (3) a preference for practical examples over theoretical word-equation building.
     I came across an outstanding example of the problem the other day when editing a document for a major European publication which gives space to many senior Russians who have something intelligent and interesting to say about current problems of economic management. This is part of what a very distinguished public officer wrote about energy saving solutions for industry (after I had corrected the basic grammar):
“There is a set of common solutions and tools for savings that are relevant and useful for most industrial plants, and particularly beneficial for Russian manufacturing due to the high age of most of the manufacturing assets: electrical energy savings by optimisation of load scheduling, variable speed drives and more efficient electric motors, reducing harmonics and improving the power factor, burning optimisation by reducing the fuel demand and fuel mix while implementing alternative fuels, recovery of waste heat, air, steam, heat distribution control, loss prevention monitoring, technology analyses and process optimisation, which could be the most important one.”
     And if your eyes have not glazed over and closed yet, try this example which, though shorter, is even more constipated, syntactically-speaking:
“Definition of the strategic role on the normative level of private investments and focused work aimed at the creation of comfortable and effective mechanisms for the successful activities of Russian and foreign investors in Russia demonstrates the priority policy of the Russian Government to create all necessary conditions for attracting private investments to the Russian economy.”
     I read these two sentences to a Russian friend whose opinions I respect about many things, and his immediate reaction was: “That is the way my professor at MGU used to write. In fact, when I wrote the first draft of my PhD thesis, and I tried to put it in clear, simple language, he rejected it saying nobody will think you are worth reading if you write like that. These examples are exactly how he used to write. Every sentence was a paragraph.”
     This is nothing to do with the Russian language, which is quite capable of being concise and clear when it wants to be. It is a problem that has resulted from a habit of thinking which is designed to conceal real thought—a combination of socialist deceit, imperialist bombast, and the sort of inferiority complex which, in a different context, provokes short men to drive big cars.
     It could be called Potemkin prose, in that it gives the appearance of being the result of profound ratiocination, when in fact the writer has not been able to organise his or her thoughts with sufficient rigour to be able to say something which the averagely intelligent reader might be able to understand. (See my post about the head of MGIMO, 7 April 2013.) Clear thinking and clarity of expression go hand-in-hand. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” as Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16). It is the same with language. By their ability to communicate, ye shall know them.
     If this blog has any over-riding message it is that the first aim of writing is to make yourself understood, and the best way to do that is to write simply but thoughtfully—but above all, simply. The single sentence which changed the world more than any other in the last couple of centuries only had five words in it, and was written by a man who never even went to university, much less got a PhD.
     “Ee,” he said, with an impish grin on his hairy German face, “equals em cee squared.” 
     Russian academics and bureaucrats would do well to remember that you cannot get much simpler than Einstein’s famous theoretical word-equation.


  1. -- grammar nazi mode ON.
    The Einstein's photo caption should read "Five words that changed the world". Not "than".
    -- grammar nazi mode OFF

    I do understand that this is a pure typo.
    But :)

  2. Good piece and accurate. The logorrhea (yes, I do know what it means and, yes, I had to check the spelling) is not confined to academe - some of the written communications my company has received from official sources are mind-bending in their simultaneous ability to spill ink over many tortuous paragraphs and say exactly nothing.

    Politicians drag language down to their own depths all over the world – but this is one area in which Russians excel. I once listened to a beautifully enunciated speech by Yeltsin (well, he was sober or seemingly so) in which every word carried proudly its own meaning. And yet, there was no sense. None. In despair, I turned to my Russian friends, who shrugged ‘It’s the same for us; meaningless babble’

    But whence springs this wretched and tedious wooden language? Parents do not talk to their children like this and what passes for entertainment in the mass media tends, if anything, towards the other direction, slappy-happy grunts and squeals. So that leaves the schools ….ah yes, the schools. Simply to reach the heights of fluent, pompous meaninglessness, so effectively shown by your examples, surely requires early training and many years of it? I have long held the view that the biggest threat to the development of this country is the education system and your friend’s comments about the punishment, which may arise from the use of clear and concise language, sadly bear out my view.