Joys of deciphering English

Dictionary

 

Uzo (my writing partner from Nigeria) writes:

When I am at a loss as to what a word means or how to write something, I consult my English dictionary. But then it’s English we are talking about; a vast somewhat complex language. It appears changes are being made every two or three years. And who am I to question another man’s language?

I imagine traditional speakers of English hold different views when it comes to the application of certain words. Take for e.g. “fell” in the sentence “His face fell.” In the Oxford dictionary there is an example like that along with its meaning. If as a writer, one is trying to convey to his readers that Jane is discouraged by her test results, how does he do so without being wordy? Do I simply say Jane looked discouraged? I am sure a good editor will point that out to me as “telling” how Jane feels. Yes, a writer doesn’t have to “show” everything, but when he does, he either is talking about a body part or anything around his book’s character(s). And from what I gather excessive use of “…ly” words make for lazy writing. So we are back to creativity in writing. How much description is bad and what sentences are now a cliché or not grammatical enough?

 

I write:

English is a horrendous language to learn. Culture plays a role too of course. I was getting my teeth cleaned yesterday and the hygienist, who is Vietnamese, said that her nieces and nephew are half-breeds. She used this expression because her sister and brother married white Canadians. I told her that “half-breed” has a terrible negative connotation coming from racism. When I was a kid, native Indians, (or to use the current politically correct term, aboriginals), who had an Indian parent and a white parent, were referred to, in a very derogatory way, as half-breeds. Of course she was completely unaware of this. Now, people use the term bi-racial. So I would say my granddaughter is bi-racial because she is half Mexican and half white Canadian.

 

At the same time, the complexity of English offers a multitude of nuances of meaning and that, of course, is where the difficulty lies. The article I sent you is just one writer’s opinion. She makes some very good points, but I disagree when she says the expression “his face fell” has the reader picturing his face on the floor. In fact “his face fell” is perfectly understood by native speakers to signify his shock or disappointment.

 

How much description is bad? It’s too much if the reader skips over parts. It’s too much if it doesn’t advance the story. Before television, books had huge passages of description that readers enjoyed, but with all the visual media we have now, readers don’t have the patience for that sort of thing. But then there is also danger in too little description if it leaves the reader puzzled as to what is happening. We, as the writer, have the scene clear in our heads. It has to be clear for the reader too.

 

One of the “joys” of being a writer is trying to find the balance in all of this.
 

Uzo writes:

Half-breed. Ah! We used to call white people half-caste. I thought that was cool until I got into senior secondary. Imagine how embarrassed I was when I was corrected. I felt terrible because one of my very good childhood friends was a white girl. She’s bi-racial – Nigerian and German.

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6 comments on “Joys of deciphering English

  1. English can be so confusing. I even have difficulties between the British and Canadian way of saying things. I read that trainers were not allowed in the gym. I thought that was very strange as trainers should be there with the athletes. Then my husband explained that “trainers” are what we call runners.

    • I’m chuckling at this. It’s like when my cousin from Australia lived with us for a while in Canada. He wanted to know if he should be the skirting on in the room he was using. I had visions of cloth hanging from the walls until he pointed to the baseboards in the living room.

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