What is Good English? That is the Question.
By Trisha Fleurimond
It is amazing how the English language plays such an enormous role in our everyday lives yet it is so hard to define. How can something that is so commonly used have so many definitions as to what it is? Someone’s idea of good English may not be another’s. A word or a catchy phrase may sound awkward to one person but may seem like a work of art to another. To conquer good English one must have the ability to habitually use concision and clarity when speaking and writing. Concision and clarity consists of well-structured and organized paragraphs. Each paragraph should have unity and come together with the next. Each writing piece should have correct grammar and punctuation. Those two factors are also important. Sentence level and diction is essential. Sentences need to be as concise as possible. A sentence can be lengthy if it is necessary. Word choice should be good-quality and not too complex. If one is able to accomplish all of these, then they have demonstrated good English.
John Simon, the author of “Why Good English Is Good for You”, may not completely show good English, but he still demonstrates strong elements of good English in his piece. Even though Simon’s sentences are unnecessarily wordy and uses complicated vocabulary, his piece is very well-structured and organized. He uses a planned format and he tells the reader what he is going to do in each paragraph. For example, Simon looks at two sides of his argument and then provides an answer for both while telling the reader what he is about to do. He wrote, “Let me try to answer the first group first, and then come back to the questions of the second” (Simon 559). From the way Simon decided to format his essay, one can tell that he did what he felt was necessary to make sure the reader understood his claims. Analogies are something that he also used very frequently in his essay. Although Simon made his sentences wordy and made many of his words complex, his usage of analogies and his organization helped the reader follow along.
David Leonhardt’s “The College Dropout Boom” uses good English and the strongest part of his article is his sentences. He uses a lot of short and clear sentences like “It just felt like the natural thing to do.” “People in Chilhowie noticed that.” and “The heat was brutal.” The article has an active voice and everything is put into the simplest terms. Leonhardt’s sentences make it every easy for the reader to follow along. The article gives an abundant amount of information in a coherent manner. People always feel obligated to say more than what is needed when it comes to writing. Leonhardt’s article shows that simplicity is in fact good English. The article is separated into sections so that the reader can have an idea about what will be the main focus in that particular part. When Leonhardt wants to focus on a particular idea, he gives a definition of it before he moves on. That is what he did when he mentioned “economic mobility”. David Leonhardt does a good job supporting concision and clarity.
“Grading your professors” by Jacob Neusner has a lot of strong aspects of good English in his piece. Like Leonhardt, Neusner’s sentences are concise. His word choice is just right. He does not use difficult vocabulary and his paragraphs come nicely together. The essay is easy to read. The essay has great topic sentences that give the reader an idea of what to expect from the paragraph. In his very first paragraph he wrote, “Since professors stand at the center of the student’s encounter with college learning, students ought to ask what marks a good professor, what indicates a bad one” (Neusner 184). This sentence gives the reader a pretty good idea that the essay has to do with professor’s performances and how well they do their job. Like Simon, Neusner uses other ways to support his argument which is a great way to enhance the reader’s comprehension. In one paragraph, he talks about an encounter involving himself and a pilot then he ties that back to his argument. He writes, “I once asked an airline pilot, what is the difference between a good landing and a bad one...Can we define the difference between a good teacher and a bad one”( Neusner 186)?Once again this piece supports clarity.
In a college newspaper, a letter was written to the university, this letter does not show an example of good English. This letter has no form of order or clarity. The author moves carelessly from place to place. There are words missing in some of the sentences and they are uncomprehendable. For example, he writes, “If you have an opinion you strongly believe in, then write The Collegian.” He is missing “to”. He also writes, “You might have some ideas that someone would back in a minute, but it doesn’t do them a lot of good if they don’t hear them.” This sentence has no clarity as to what the author is saying. It does not make any sense. The author does not have a variety of word choice and he makes his sentences dull. For instance, he over-uses the word “you”. In his very first paragraph he wrote, “It’s not an easy day without feeling you have to comment on something…and immediately you…that occurs when you feel...might affect you or that someone is wrong.”
The article has a lack of concision. In one paragraph, instead of writing that the faculty at University of Richmond is an important resource, he wrote, “There is a large division at the University of Richmond that probably has the most information to offer, yet they remain silent. This group is known about campus as the faculty.” The passive voice and the wordiness are pointless. The writer tends to repeat the same word in his in sentences and he uses words he does not need. He wrote, “You always hear about some great professor in another department who has some great ideas.” and “Those ideas don’t do a whole lot of good to the students in other departments who don’t hear them. His poor sentences and diction hinders the letter from being effective. In John Simon’s essay he spoke about having discipline and memory. He believes that one should think about what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. He also believes that one should have the ability to know what makes sense and what does not (Simon 556-557). The writer did not practice neither of the factors mentioned or even revised the letter.
People might say that using big words when speaking shows that the speaker is well-educated. That may be true but even though people are impressed they still will not understand what the person is saying. Instead, they will get caught up in that person’s articulate word choices and miss the whole point. The audience will partially understand what is said, well unless they have a dictionary with them. Clarity is important. The objective is to make it easy for the audience. Someone with good English is capable of using decent vocabulary and still sound intelligent. The audience will also be able to follow along easily. The same idea goes for writing. If a reader has to constantly look at a dictionary while reading a piece, it can be distracting and the reader may lose focus. Looking at John Simon’s and Jacob Neusner’s piece, Simon’s essay is more difficult to read because of the strong vocabulary he uses. Neusner’s piece is a lot easier to follow along because he does not use hard words but his words are still well chosen.
Others may also say that wordiness is better and simplicity sometimes does not say enough. It may sound like it, but isn’t it better to put things into the simplest terms instead of making it unnecessarily complicated? Let’s refer back to Simon’s essay. In one of the sentences he wrote, “Discipline because language is with us always, as nothing else is: …even beyond” (Simon 556). Simon could have broken up that sentence instead of putting it all into one and causing confusion. If one has doubts about lacking information, then start with a new sentence and then continue. Like vocabulary, useless sentences can confuse the reader and lead them off track. In addition, people might look at grammar and punctuation and think that it is not as important. They might think that what matters is getting their point across. Punctuation and grammar may be last but it still should be a priority. They are the finishing touches on a writing piece and many seem to overlook that. Even if everything in a writing piece is correct, it will not be complete and have the characteristics of Good English if the punctuation and grammar are not correct. Those two factors contribute to clarity.
Everyone can have their opinion as to what makes good English but concision and clarity must be amongst the list. If there is no concision then there can not be clarity. When there is no clarity then there is no audience. Most of the writing pieces had something in particular that made their piece good English. Simon’s strongest point was structure and organization. The strongest part of Leonhardt’s essay was his short and to-the-point sentences. Neusner had all the examples of good English in his essay. Even though the English language is changing from time to time, it is important to still try to master the essential parts. To do this one must continuously work at what they are trying to convey and how they are going to do it in the most effective way. A speaker or a writer needs to keep the listeners and readers in mind. One who has skilled in good English has the ability to inspire others to try to do the same.
© Trisha Fleurimond