English, What’s Left of It, and Its Management


Recently I took part in a discussion of writing and how to do it at Counter-Currents.com. This being a topic of some importance to me, I decided to throw together a few thoughts in a form more coherent that I could do in a podcast. A danger in doing this is that readers will joyfully point out instances in which I have failed to follow my own suggestions. To these sins I confess in advance. Anyway:

This is not a golden age of writing. For one thing, few today have the grasp of English grammar that long ago we had learned by the fifth grade, or any idea why it might be important. Nor, I suspect, have many read much in the best authors in English and so have not acquired an ingrained feel for what is good and what isn’t. I may be wrong. I hope so.

For another, good writing is elitist, and must be. Elitism means a preference for the better to the worse. In an intellectual climate resembling that of an urban bus station, in which the lower cultural orders seek to drag standards to the bottom, few will prefer good writing to bad, or know the difference.

Further, when people are in constant communication via telephones, garbling and semiliteracy are less important than they were when poor communication demanded clarity. In the following we will pretend that it is 1955 and that I am speaking to young who want to write well.

To begin, my advice to the aspiring writer is to forget “creativity.” Writing is first a craft, involving rules and principles and things to which the student should learn to pay attention. Later, perhaps, writing is an art. You have to learn the notes before playing a concerto. Accepting this is important.

Also important, crucial I would say, is the habit of paying attention to language itself, not just its content. By this I mean the structure of sentences, choice of words, turn of phrase. If you read a piece and  think it good, read it again and ask why it is good. If an analytical piece, is the analysis clear and compelling? The phrasing fresh and devoid of cliche? The vocabulary extensive and correct in use?

To again use a comparison to music, the listener doesn’t have to know music theory, but the musician does.

Here some brief notes on grammar, a maligned field. Pardon me if I am   didactic, but these things are worth knowing.

A language consists of its grammar and vocabulary.  Grammar is the structure that allows words to convey meaning with respect  to each  other. Americans imbibe with theirr mother’s milk a close approximation of the structure of English but a writer needs better.

All European languages of which I am aware (Basque is a mystery to me) have similar structures. Knowing English grammar has benefits beyond being able to write well. If you know the six-part present-tense structure of an English verb, first-person singular and plural, second-person, etc., then learning Spanish verbs is just a matter of plugging new words into a familiar pattern. Otherwise, you have problems. My wife Violeta, Mexican, who for years made her living teaching Spanish to gringos, despaired of students who did not grasp the structure of their own language. They were essentially unteachable.

So, to the aspiring writer I would say: If you don’t know English grammar, learn it. It can be daunting. Tenses, compound tenses, indicative voice, subjunctive mood, appositives, participles, gerunds, linking verbs, prepositions, dependent clauses, and so on. If we could do it by the fifth grade, certainly you can do it.  If nothing else, in will inculcate an  awareness of the mechanics of English.

Why? Knowledge gives you an entirely different understanding of things. (You saw it here first.) I can watch a soccer game and get a kick out of all the players running in all directions. Violeta, being a Mexican, whose national game it is, sees strategy, tactics, calculated moves, and the goal is not the random result of randomly kicking the ball but the product of cooperating players who know exactly what they are doing. So with writing. People who know what is going on see a different game.

Let us consider some rules of composition which, in conjunction, make all the difference. They can be broken to good effect at times, but these times should be few. I have not invented them. A half century ago, they were known to all competent writers.

Follow a long, complex sentence with a short, crispy one. Long sentences following long sentences tire the reader, who is likely to decide to read something else.

Omit unnecessary words. Don’t say “adverse weather conditions.” Say “bad weather.” Don’t say that an airplane “has the capability to fly long distances.” Say that it “can fly long distances,” or that it has a long range. Especially bad is “the process{” as in “the repair process.” Just say “repair.”}

A useful exercise is to go through newspaper stories and see how many words can be crossed out without loss. or how many of the foregoing rules have been infelicitously broken.

Don’t use the same word too near itself. Why this reads badly I don’t know, but it does.

The verb agrees with the subject of the sentence, not the object of the nearest preposition. Wrong: “The statues in the house, near the big bay window, was the clue that gave John away.”

Avoid cliches as you would a rabid dog. They make the sensitive reader want to get a drink, or play tennis, or do  anything but keep reading. Never, ever say “the tip of the iceberg.” Or, please, please, “the American dream,” or “the American people.” Or “the love of my life.” Or “the beginning of the end.” Certain words amount to cliches by overuse. “Incredibly” is one. The inexperienced writer uses it with abandon in an attempt to give force to a sentence that doesn’t have any.

Learn to handle the subjunctive. “It is important that you not smoke” and “It is important that you don’t smoke” mean different things.

Fresh similes and metaphors may require an imagination that not everyone has, but are worth seeking. Readers of Raymond Chandler probably remember his phraseology after they have forgotten the plots of his books. “He had a nose like a straphanger’s elbow.” Or, “She was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

In fiction, avoid sex scenes. You can’t compete with PornHub.  In more puritanical times, such described couplings may have been titillating. Today they are just embarrassing.

Bad language, both obscenity and profanity, have their place but should be used with exceeding infrequency as they quickly become merely crass. They are more admissible in the dialog of characters of coarse background, but even here restraint is advisable.

Avoid mixed metaphors. They are often ridiculous and jar the sensitive reader, making him wonder what and whether the writer was thinking. “The octopus of Nazism has sung its swan song.”

Use the words “very” and “significant” sparingly. These are used by poor or inexperienced writers attempting to give force to statements. They usually do the opposite. Of the two, “significant” is the more discardable. “The stock market rose significantly.” If it rose insignificantly, the reader will think why would you tell him about it?

Be careful not to confuse similar words. As was said in newspapering, a “burro” is an ass. A “burrow” is a hole in the ground. A writer should know the difference. “Sensuous” means “appealing to the senses,” as in, “The queen wore a sensuous green dress.” “Sensual” means “pertaining to the sexual.” “His thoughts were sensual as he approached the naked cheerleader doing her pole dance.” “Bellicose” means “aggressive, inclined to fight.” “Belligerent,” from the Latin gerund, means, “engaged in fighting.” “The bellicosity of the Japanese led to war, in which they and the Chinese were the chief belligerents.” These latter two are now often used interchangeably, diminishing the clarity of language.

Pay attention to what words actually mean. Few today do, in universities or anywhere else but to literate readers they matter. For example, “impact” means a physical blow. It is not a verb. Such horrors as “losing the game impacted very significantly on his self-worth” probably justify hanging. Psychobabble like “self-worth” should be strenuously avoided.

Here we come to the vexed matter of grammatical gender. In the past, the masculine “he” included women: “If a traveler comes to New York, he will marvel at the tall buildings.” In ages in which men were more dominant than they now are, this sort of thing was tolerable, or at least tolerated.  This is not uniquely a difficulty in English. In Spanish, “niños,” literally “little boys,” is used to mean children of both sexes.

This has led to both awkwardness and absurdity. “If someone comes into the gym,tell him or her to put his or her dress in his  or her locker.” Or, If someone comes into the women’s gym, tell them to put on their sports bra.” , The workaround embedding itself in the culture is to use “them,” “they,” and “their” as indefinite pronouns. This is I think necessary though objectionable and one day will cease to jar the literate, if there be any. Today they just sound uneducated.

Habing written your short story or magazine piece, read it aloud to yourself. Does it sound natural? Don’t say, “Mary said to the cop, ‘I saw Jane ascending the stairs with her cold dark eyes full of hatred and her hand running along the elaborately carved French Revival banister with the brass ornamentation.” Nobody talks that way. It is called exposition in dialog. You should have the detective who is the narrative voice in your story do the describing.  Exposition in dialog is bed because it gives the story, or book, a phoniness that the reader may not be able to shake.

Now a few thoughts on the management of editors, the assumption here being that you want to write political commentary.

First, you should adopt some point on the Left-Right political spectrum, it doesn’t matter which, and never, ever stray from it. Neither readers nor editors are forgiving. If you are the most flaming liberal, slanted to the point of being vertical, and then write a column in favor of gun rights, it may be your last. If you are the most thunderous conservative, way out on the right wing where the feathers grow thinn and giddy space beckons, and then you write in favor of reparations to blacks, you will need another job.

Second, from columnists most editors want predictability, not thought or originality. A newspaper editor does not want to wake up mornings and think, “Oh God, what has Fred written now, and how many advertisers will jump ship?” They want slot columnists: the black male conservative, the house-broken white conservative, the moderate male liberal, and so on. These never make waves, never do anything unexpected, so the editor can worry instead about the many other things that worry editors.

Third, your job as a columnist is to tell your readers what they already believe in engaging prose. They want confirmation, not information. The farther to the Right or Left they are, the less they will tolerate any disturbance to the tranquil certainties they espouse.

They do like seeing the infidels smashed. Years back I read of a columnist, I forget where, I think in the Thirties, who was wildly liberal to the point of being goofy. He apparently overdid it  because another writer, far to the Right, began attacking him  savagely. For years the controversy raged, until it was discovered that they were the same guy. Outrage erupted. Was this not unprincipled?

No, the guy responded. He said his job was to affirm the beliefs, or delusions, of his readers, and he was doing so in both cases. What was the problem?

Them’s my thoughts, for whatever they may be worth.


Enjoy scurrilous commentary and vilification of practically everything, delivered to your inbox with “weird sex stories” in the subject line so nobody will know you are reading Fred.







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Comments 12

  • Hi
    You will probably be swamped with comments telling you that software can do a lot of the spelling, grammar and style checks that you describe. 🙂
    Grammatica is the original, but there are many others.
    I use https://languagetool.org/ which catches most of my errors. 🙂
    (Firefox add-on).

    Best wishes, BillK

  • Rules are for maintaining a civilization. The people currently in power are seeking to end
    the current civilization here and replace it with one they believe would be preferable. And it
    likely would, at least to them? Most of the rest of us probably wouldn’t be so pleased with
    it. Control of language gives control of culture. So our language is being altered to that purpose.

    Time also changes a language. Common speech from 500 years ago would be difficult for us
    to understand and ours to them. That’s the nature of language, it evolves. In the past life
    changed at the speed of a horse. Now it changes at light speed. Speech and grammar are not immune to this increase in change. We must learn to accept that change is normal, but forced
    change is not something we should readily accept.

    We as a society are at war. The majority don’t even know that. Language is a weapon those
    seeking to rule us use to achieve their goal. The first rule of war is to know it exists. We haven’t even reached that point. Quibbling over grammar and definitions serves the purpose of the communist left. Let us worry less about what is happening and more about why.

  • In the paragraph beginning

    > Be careful not to confuse similar words. As was said in newspapering, a “burro” is an ass.
    > A “burrow” is a hole in the ground. A writer should know the difference.

    I could hear in my mind’s ear the old-school editor at the newspaper in _The Wire_.

    Nice one, Fred.

  • Good read. Enlightening for those of us who (still) don’t know the difference between “It is important that you not smoke” and “It is important that you don’t smoke”.

  • I’m not as bad as French but I believe our language has quality and power and should be respected, preserved and used well. I am not fluent in German, French or Japanese but I have tried to be able to function at a basic level and what impresses me is the quality with which most natives still use those languages. Vocabulary, pronunciation, fluidity. Go back and look at old movies. We could and did do that, not long ago.

  • Lol you have AI bots replying, Fred! You’re scaring the machine. Keep it up. They can never truly “write” but can only be a shadow of writing.

  • Zero fucks I give. Only swag, money and hoes I like.

  • Excellent article Fred! Schools now teach minimal grammar, so children can’t understand nor express distinctions in thoughts. They merely feel a jumbo of emotions. We see the effects of this in the daily national chaos. But, I guess it provides a jolt of entertainment each day.

  • Throughout my years in high school, there was a poster prominently displayed in the main lobby. While I agree with you as to the deliberate usage of profanity, consideration of the following statement would benefit many today.

    “Profanity is the effort of a feeble mind to express itself forcibly”.

  • This post 4 real? U serious Fred?

    (Sorry. Couldn’t resist)

  • Great article. I just finished Jack London’s The Iron Heel. No fancy dancy words. Great character development. No swear words. So well written that I wanted more, since it ends abruptly. All the points you write about in this article. Allegedly George Orwell was inspired to write his famous 1984 after reading The Iron Heel.

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