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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Simple, Direct, To-The-Point

The other day in class I was talking to my students about the English-language adjective "arabesque." You know, meaning ornamental, affected, serpentine? The word can be used to describe most any type of visual, musical, and/or written expression. As you might guess, the subject came up as we discussed expectations for written prose in English. Students who have studied at Lebanese public schools (where much instruction is in Arabic) or the French academies here (where virtually all instruction is in French) tend to write in ways that are arabesque. Long introductions, long and prosaic sentences, more than a little bit of circumlocution, big words.

We're reading Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" in a few weeks and I'd like to move the reading up. As a trained rhetorician, I'm trying to focus our discussions around concepts like conventions, expectations, and cultural differences. Not everybody values the traits that have become institutionalized in language and writing instruction in the U.S. Simple, direct, clear, crisp prose. Is Raymond Carver translated into Arabic and French? I would be curious to know how his fiction--distinctly American not only in terms of prose style but in many other ways too--is received among audiences outside of the U.S. Have Strunk & White been translated and/or marketed to students and English-speaking audiences overseas? Those are the texts that come to mind when I think of how canonical and mythic the notion of "keep it concise" has become.

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