Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

How to write like Orwell

Orwell used a Remington Portable typewriter

This is based in part on William Cane’s “Write Like the Masters” (2009), partly on stuff Orwell said and partly on my own chance observations:

George Orwell gave some rules for writing:

  1. What words will express it?
  2. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  3. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  4. Could I put it more shortly?
  5. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

And more particularly:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech
    which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Of course there is more to it than just that:

  • Write what you feel most strongly about. Orwell wrote his best stuff when he wrote about politics.
  • Write when you are suffering: Yes. When Orwell wrote “1984”, he had tuberculosis. It made his main character, Winston Smith, more believable.
  • Plot: keep it simple.  It does not have to have a hundred twists and turns. A simpler plot will allow you to spend more time on your characters, your political opinions and other stuff.
  • Characters: as the author you know everything about your characters – but your characters and readers do not! Keep them guessing and wondering. Like O’Brien in “1984”: Winston Smith did not know whose side he was on. But that helps to draw in both Smith and the reader.
  • Evil villains: do not make them completely evil – that is not believable. Even Hitler loved animals. O’Brien was well spoken and personally kind. It was not clear how evil he was till the end.
  • Repeat stuff: no one is going to remember everything you said in the first ten pages. So Orwell has Winston Smith return to his diary, return to his lover Julia, return to sayings like “Big Brother is watching you”.
  • Ending: go for the worst possible ending. Have no mercy.
  • Theme: You may not know your theme when you start writing but after the rough draft you will – or should. When you go back to edit your work cut the things that do not support your theme and milk the things that do. A theme, like Orwell’s theme of personal alienation in “1984”, will make your writing seem deeper and more solid: it will hang together better and have more meaning for your readers even if they cannot say in words what that theme is.
  • Study and copy other writers: Orwell studied these, particularly the last two, whose passages he copied admiring their lack of adjectives:
    • Aristophanes
    • Jack London – good style and plotting
    • Zola
    • Melville
    • W. Somerset Maugham
    • Swift

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Orwell: Why I Write

The following is based on George Orwell’s “Why I Write” (1946):

George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer since he was five or six and yet avoided becoming one till he was 24 and did not firmly make up his mind to be one till 33. In the end he found he had to write.

In the 1700s he might have become a Christian minister:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

But he was born to evil times when evil men, like Hitler and Stalin, wanted to rule the world. Democracy was disappearing. After fighting in the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1937 he made up his mind. He had two talents: he was good with words and he was good at facing unpleasant facts. So from 1936 onwards he used those talents to fight against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.

He says there are five motives that drive every writer to one degree or another; they are always there no matter how weak:

  1. To earn a living: Journalists are more concerned about money than serious writers, but even serious writers must eat.
  2. Sheer egoism: “Look at me!” Wanting to be remembered after you die, wanting to bend your life to your will instead of going with the flow like most people do after age 30. Writers share this in common with artists, scientists, businessmen, etc. Writers do not like to admit to it, but it is often their strongest motive.
  3. Aesthetic enthusiasm: the love of words and their beauty, of putting them together in the right way. Even textbook writers feel this. “Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free of aesthetic considerations.”
  4. Historical impulse: wanting to see things as they are and get the truth out.
  5. Political purpose: wanting to change the world by changing people’s ideas of the kind of society they should work for. Even “art for art’s sake” is a political stand.

In a more peaceful age the political motive would have barely mattered. As it was he found he wrote his best stuff when the political motive was uppermost. Anger at injustice drove him more than anything else:

I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

And yet as a serious writer he wanted to write well, to create art. It was not always easy to do both at the same time.

But in the end, as much as he might try to make sense of it, he says wanting to write is a mystery:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

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typewriter_jpg-288x300Atlanticisms are American and British dialect words that are understood on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • ad
  • add up
  • air matress
  • attic
  • autumn
  • ballpoint pen
  • Band-Aid
  • bar – not pub
  • bell-boy
  • big spender – not high roller
  • bill – not check (restaurant)
  • billboard – not hoarding
  • bird-watcher – not birder
  • blackboard
  • blackjack – not pontoon (card game)
  • bleach – not Clorox
  • blue-collar
  • boarder – not lodger
  • bring up – not raise (a child)
  • broke – out of money
  • broken – not busted
  • bulrush – not cattail
  • cafeteria
  • call – not ring up (telephone)
  • can opener
  • capital letters – not block letters
  • chickpea – not garbanzo bean
  • chief of police – not sheriff
  • cigarette butt
  • cinema
  • coffin – not casket
  • cop
  • cottom swab – not Q-Tip
  • crayfish
  • crematorium
  • cupboard
  • cupcake
  • curse – not cuss
  • curt – not snippy
  • curtains
  • dad
  • deadlock – not stand-off
  • dessert
  • dishcloth
  • drainpipe
  • drinking fountain
  • dress – not frock
  • dressing-table – not vanity
  • dump – not landfill
  • evening shift – not swing shift
  • extra-large – not outsize
  • fabulous – not royal
  • failed – not bombed
  • field – not pitch (sporting term)
  • fill out – not fill in a form
  • fire engine
  • firefly – not lightning bug
  • fire station
  • foot-and-mouth disease
  • funny-bone
  • glasses – not spectacles or eyeglasses
  • green thumb
  • grill
  • gnat – not midge
  • goose bumps
  • gutters
  • guy – male only
  • hamburger
  • handbag
  • heap – old car
  • hideaway
  • high-rise (building)
  • hike – not ramble
  • house painter
  • icing
  • idiot
  • imagine – not guess (as in “I guess so”)
  • immediately – not straight away
  • jam – not jelly
  • jerk
  • label – not tag
  • lavatory – not bathroom or rest room
  • lawyer – not attorney, solicitor or barrister
  • life jacket
  • lollipop
  • lonely – not lonesome
  • lout – not oik
  • magician
  • mail
  • measuring cup
  • minister – not vicar
  • mongrel – not mutt
  • nail polish
  • napkin – not serviette
  • newspaper clipping
  • newsstand – not news agent
  • nuts – not crackers
  • nutty
  • pack of cards – not deck of cards
  • pantry
  • parka – not anorak
  • paper-wasp – not yellow jacket
  • patch together – not cobble together
  • pawn – not hock
  • pedestrian crossing – not crosswalk or zebra crossing
  • pharmacist
  • pharmacy – not chemist or drugstore
  • physiotherapist
  • plasterboard – not Sheetrock
  • play hookey
  • plum pudding
  • police line up
  • porch – not stoop
  • prison – not penitentiary
  • public swimming pool
  • pushups
  • quarter – not fourth
  • quotation marks
  • racecourse
  • rattle on
  • reform school
  • relic – not holdover
  • rubber boots
  • rummage sale
  • rumpus – not ruckus
  • running shoes – not sneakers, trainers or tennis shoes
  • Santa Claus
  • scuzzy
  • seesaw
  • senior citizen – not pensioner
  • shopping bag
  • shopping cart – not trolley or buggy
  • shopping centre – not mall or shopping plaza
  • shoulder – not verge (of a road)
  • slash – not oblique or stroke (the “/” symbol)
  • slice of bacon – not rasher
  • somewhere – not someplace
  • smitten – not besotted
  • sofa
  • soft drink
  • soil – not dirt
  • stands – at a sporting event
  • sticker – not decal
  • stockings – not hose
  • stopover – not layover
  • stove
  • stuffing – not dressing
  • sucker – not patsy
  • supermarket – not grocery store
  • sweater
  • swimsuit
  • tarpaulin – not tarp
  • tasteless – not tacky
  • theatre programme – not Playbill
  • thermos
  • timetable – not schedule (for buses and trains)
  • toll-road – not turnpike
  • tone-deaf – not have a tin ear
  • tramp – not hobo or bum
  • travelling salesman
  • trunk – not steamer trunk
  • TV
  • usual – not regular
  • vacuum cleaner – not Hoover
  • vending machine – not slot machine
  • waiter – not server (restaurant)
  • walking-stick – not cane
  • wary – not leery
  • wedding ring
  • wharf – not quay
  • while – not whilst
  • wrench – not spanner
  • yell – not holler
  • zero – not nil

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TV Tropes

lampshade_logo_blueTV Tropes (2003- ) is a website (tvtropes.org) that talks about tropes on television shows and in other works of fiction. A trope is a story element that you see over and over again – like Black Best Friends, Impossibly Cool Clothes, Conveyor Belts O Doom, Lampshades and Mary Sues. It started out as a website about the American television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) but then grew to take in all works of fiction. After all, many of the cheap plot tricks and sorts of characters you see in “Buffy” are as old as dirt.

Like YouTube, it is a form of Internet crack: it is hard to let go – just one more! – but then the next thing you know your clock is saying two in the morning.

It makes you laugh but it also opens your eyes. It talks about all the things you have seen on television over and over again but never had a name for. Like how evil geniuses never just shoot the hero dead but have some overly long way of killing him that is not properly watched over or guarded (Death Trap). Or how showdowns always seem to take place inside dangerous buildings with bad railing (No OSHA Compliance).

It is a wiki, which means anyone can add to it. But unlike the Wikipedia, it is run by some people who do not take themselves too seriously and still have a sense of humour. Nor do they judge what is “notable” and what is not. And it is cool enough to quote the Uncyclopedia.

Most entries name a trope, give a description followed by a list of examples – from television, film, video games, anime, books, etc. Or it can be the other way round: a work of fiction with a list of tropes that it uses.

It covers not just American and British media but Japanese media too. You can find out why the Japanese draw characters with big round eyes and blue hair, for example. And what the Japanese word is for the part of a schoolgirl’s thigh that shows just below her skirt. It is also surprisingly good (but not great) on racism in American media.

I first saw the website two years ago but then got a new computer and lost the bookmark. I found it again the other night when I was trying to find out the word for the trope where the hero is white even though everyone else in the story is not (Mighty Whitey).

Some of the stuff you already knew, like Black Dude Dies First or Not Too Black, but other stuff you did not – like how television stations in the American South used to cut out scenes with black characters (unless the characters played to stereotype, of course).

Because you will know too much about the cheap tricks that writers use to make a story good, they say you will not be able to enjoy television quite the same way again.

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reader-digest-china-01Reader’s Digest is an American magazine that comes out in 21 languages in 70 countries and has over 70 million readers. That must be some kind of record, so studying how they write articles should help you in your own writing. Here is the advice that I draw from them:

  • Write at an eighth-grade reading level so that even a 13-year-old can understand it. But do not talk down to us, your readers!
  • Make it about people. People are interested in people and love stories about them. Even an article about an important issue is best told through  the stories of the people it affects.
  • The best stories are those about ordinary people overcoming the odds through their own action.
  • The story should have several highs and lows and end on a high.
  • The headline or title should be eight words or less. It should catch the attention of the reader and make at least the general subject of the article clear. Example: “The Great Eye Test Scandal”.
  • The subhead: together with the headline it tells us what the article is about and why we would want to read it. Example: “Undercover for Reader’s Digest, I made a chilling discovery about the people who are supposed to look after our eyes.”
  • The opening paragraph hits us over the head with something surprising or terrible or moving. Example: “I’m going blind. Very slowly my iris is breaking up and particles of pigment are starting to clog drainage channels behind my cornea. Because of this, a build-up of fluid is pressing on the optic nerve at the back of my eye. It’s this pressure that is causing damage. This is glaucoma.”
  • When we get to the end of your article, do not make us feel like we just wasted our time. Tell us a great story, tell us something useful we can apply to our own lives or help us to understand an important issue and what can be done about it.
  • Use plenty of details: Tell us what we see and hear and feel (and maybe even smell and taste), make us feel like we are there!
  • Use plenty of dialogue: We want to hear what the people in the story are saying!
  • Gather anecdotes about your subject, more than you need, and put the best ones in your article. The Reader’s Digest absolutely loves anecdotes.
  • Write only what is true. Check your facts! The Reader’s Digest does. Do not make up stuff or talk in general.
  • Write 3500 words (seven pages) and make it as good as you can. Then cut out a thousand words (two pages)! That is what the editors at the magazine do. That allows the fat and the things that do not quite work to be cut out, making the article tighter and stronger. Every word must be there for a reason.
  • Write to be read in ten years.

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jamesm26James McBride (1957- ) is an American writer and jazz musician. He is best known as the author of “The Color of Water” (1996), which became a number one bestseller in America and is required reading at many schools and universities. He also wrote “Miracle at St. Anna” (2004), which Spike Lee made into a film of the same name in 2008. McBride has written music for Anita Baker (“Enough Love”), Grover Washington, Jr and Barney (no, not “I Love You”).

In 1981 when he worked for the Boston Globe, he wrote a column about his mother for Mother’s Day. It got so many letters that he made it into a book, “The Color of Water”.

His mother was a rabbi’s daughter who ran away from home to Harlem in 1939. She married a black man and became an outcast among whites. Even her own family cut her off. She found herself a white woman bringing up her 12 black children in Red Hook, a poor black ghetto in New York. All 12 children got university degrees, two of them becoming doctors. McBride himself studied music at Oberlin and journalism at Columbia.

As a boy McBride noticed that his mother looked different and asked her if she was white. She said she was “light-skinned”. She always talked about whites as “they” and never as “we'”. Her past was a mystery. He asked her what colour God is. She said, “the colour of water”.

Race was not something she liked to talk about. The book “The Color of Water” tells the story of his mother’s life and, in parallel, his own life and how he comes to terms with colour:

I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds.

He sees himself as black but came to understand that blacks and whites are pretty much the same on the inside. His Jewish background is part of who he is, but he is Christian.

His next book, “Miracle at St. Anna” is about four black American soldiers who fought in Italy in the Second World War as part of the mostly black 92nd Division. Like his first book, it also shows the ugliness of racism and yet at the same time  the underlying oneness of mankind.

His latest book is “Song Yet Sung” (2008). It is a true-to-life story about a slave woman who is being hunted down while she flees north towards freedom. It shows how slavery worked in practice, how it affected the moral lives of both blacks and whites.

His advice to writers:

  • You learn writing by writing.
  • Most books are written between five and seven in the morning.
  • Do not wait; start now.
  • When you fail, get back up, forgive yourself and try again. (Only about half of McBride’s books ever see print.)

Most of that goes for musicians too.

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eminem-picture-2One commenter said this:

No matter how wrong you are YOU must be right. No English teacher in 2009 would allow you to write in a paper “black” with a small “b” no even in the deep south where Blacks are still made to feel like smal “b”. But must be right, right? Why?  White is right, isn’t it? You should just start from this day to pus the shift key when writing the word Black to denote a people. I will not hurt you and it will make Black folk who read what you write feel better about you, me included. Yes how you make other feel should be important to you.

That kind of got to me. And it got me curious: what do black blogs in my corner of the blogosphere use, “black” or “Black”? Here is what I found (these appear in at least four blog rolls with me):

  • black (16): The field negro, Aunt Jemima’s Revenge, Afrobella, Raw Dawg Buffalo, The Black Snob, Beauty in Baltimore, Siditty, Black Women Blow The Trumpet!, What Would Thembi Do?, What Tami Said, New Black Woman, Make Fetch Happen, Jack & Jill Politics, The Root, The Cocoa Lounge, Acting White.
  • Black (3): What About Our Daughters, Mirror on America, Invisible Woman.
  • Both black and Black (3): The Angry Black Woman, Hello Negro, AverageBro.com.
  • Unknown (1): Gorgeous Black Women.

So out of 23 blogs only 3, about one in eight, use “Black” all the time as the adjective for black people. Most use “black” regularly,  like I do.

So while “Black” might be more politically correct, “black” cannot cause that much offence – though I could be wrong.

But as interesting as that is, it is not how I settle matters like this. Instead what I do is look it up in my dictionary: the Eleventh Edition of the “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006). It uses “black” as its main word for black people, not “Black”, much less “African American”, “Negro” or “coloured”. So that is what I use.

The Oxford dictionary was written mainly by white people. So far as I know there is no dictionary of Black American English. And even if there was, I would use it but not to settle matters like these. My aim in using English is to be understood all over the world, not just in one part of one country (Black America).

I do use “Black” on occasion, but only where I talk about blacks as an ethnicity or a culture. In that sense Eminem might arguably be called “Black” but Lenny Kravitz not, even though Kravitz is “black” and Eminem is “white” – by race.

To me what makes you black is not taking part in a particular culture or being shaped by it, like being French. It is not about music or language or anything like that. To me what makes you black is race, the experience of looking black in a white racist country and everything that follows from that.

– Abagond, 2009.

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Grey English

greyThe Lord’s Prayer in an extreme form of Grey English (extreme to make a point):

It is desired that the patriarchal figure of the triune Christian deity, who is believed to be located in the afterlife plane of existence, have his name honoured by the worshipping community, which anticipates the future eschatological phase when his name will be universally respected. It is requested that the present plane of existence be under direct and manifest divine command and, at this time, to provide for the current material needs of his believers on an ongoing, daily basis. One should cease from resentment, indignation and anger at perceived offences in order for the Christian deity to engage in reciprocation and overlook one’s own personal offences. It is further desired that said deity not position his communicants in any possible tests of character but to liberate them from morally compromising forces and situations.

Grey English (c. 1946 – ) is the name I give to the sort of English that professors, generals and businessmen write in. So do many who have a university education. The Wikipedia is written mostly in Grey English (where I got some of the Lord’s Prayer from).

Both George Orwell and June Jordan wrote against it, but never gave it a name – it was just the sad state of English in their day because people at the top lie so much.

They gave rules for avoiding it in their own writing. By turning these rules the other way round we can find out how to write in Grey English:

  • Write in the third-person passive. Avoid the word “I”.
  • Avoid the present tense.
  • Write to people in general, not to the reader.
  • Do not write about who did what. Keep it more general than that.
  • Do not write the way people talk.
  • Do not state things too plainly.
  • The more words the better. Add words, do not cut them!
  • Long words are better than short words.
  • Abstract words are better than concrete words.
  • Jargon, scientific words and foreign words are better than plain words.
  • Only use words, spellings and figures of speech that everyone else uses. Never invent any new ones!

To these I add:

  • Prefer jargon, buzzwords and catchphrases – they make you sound like you know what you are talking about.
  • Use measurements, numbers and dates – it is important to know these things!
  • Build your writing on placeholder words: person, process, nature, character, purpose, problem, solution, matter, result, perception, resources, relation, connection, condition, level, etc. This will make it easier to:
  • Write using abstract nouns and weak verbs.
  • Avoid using the same word twice – it sounds bad.
  • Never say anything straight out – guard what you say with doubts and conditions.
  • Language is not a clear glass window on the truth, but a way to get people to think certain things.

Like Orwell and Jordan, I see Grey English as bad writing that covers bad thinking and even some outright lies. I do not trust it.

See also:

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Here is my second rewrite of 1 Corinthians 2, this time as a blog post. A much harder thing than turning Greek into English since it requires understanding what the Bible says and putting it in a way that works as a blog post, which is not how Paul wrote it back in the days before Blogger and WordPress. But since this is my first try, I will pretty much stick to the points Paul made and in the order he made them. As a start.

Corinthians: put your faith not in what people tell you but in the spirit of God.

When I visited you I was weak, I was afraid, I was shaking like a leaf. I did not have fine words, I was not up on all the latest thinking. All I had, all I knew – all I thought I should have to know – was Jesus Christ, Christ dying on the cross.

So instead of trying to persuade you with fine words and subtle points, I showed you the spirit and power of God. Because your faith should be built on that, the spirit of God, not on words, not on what people say, not on the wisdom of man.

The things we told you were based not the wisdom of man, but on what the spirit of God has showed us: a secret that has been hidden by God since the beginning of time – for us, for this moment, for our glory. That is what the Bible was talking about it when it said:

Eye hath not seen,
nor ear heard,
neither have entered into the heart of man,
the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

Think about it: no one knows what is in a man’s heart except for that man’s spirit. In the same way, no one can possibly know what is in God’s heart except for the spirit of God.

And that spirit has been given to us.

And what we say comes from that spirit.

Now the things we say might seem utterly foolish to you. And that is just how it will seem if you look at it the way most people do. Because the only way you can understand it, the only way it can make sense, is to have the spirit of God in you.

Once you have the spirit of God you will see everything the right way. What people say will no longer matter to you. Because then, like us, you will see things from God’s point of view, not man’s point of view. Because knowing the mind of Christ is knowing the mind of God. And that is all you need.

My first observations: some would call this a translation, but for me it is too loose for that. But, come to think of it, maybe you could blog the whole Bible, or at least good stretches of it, this way. At Wal-Mart I once saw the New Testament sold as a girl’s magazine!

My second observations (December 2009): This is way easier to understand than the Bible!! But it could be made better if I made the points in a different order and lost some of the old-fashioned, King James sort of language.

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My rewrite of 1 Corinthians 2 in the Bible:

  1. And I, when I came to you, brothers, came not with better words or better wisdom, telling you about the mystery of God.
  2. For I thought it best not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
  3. And I in weakness and in fear and in much trembling was with you.
  4. And my speech and my message was not in the persuading words of wisdom, but in showing the Spirit and the power,
  5. so that your faith be not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
  6. We speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who come to nothing:
  7. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a hidden wisdom, which God foresaw before the ages in glory for us,
  8. which none of the rulers of this world knew: for if they knew, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
  9. But as it has been written, “What the eye did not see and the ear did not hear and into the heart of man did not enter, these things God prepared for those who love him.”
  10. But God showed them to us through his Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
  11. For who among men knows the things of a man except for the spirit in the man himself?  In the same way too the things of God no one knows except for the Spirit of God.
  12. Now we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which comes from God, so that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God.
  13. Which things also we speak, not in the words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
  14. A man in his soul does not accept the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are to be judged spiritually.
  15. But in his spirit he judges all things, yet is judged by no one.
  16. For “who has known the mind of the Lord, that he may teach him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

I took the the Authorized (King James) Version and changed it as little as possible while remaining as true to the Greek and as clear in current English as I could.

The main differences between me and the Authorized Version:

  • aion = age, not world
  • psykhikos = in his soul, not natural
  • pneuma = Spirit, not Holy Ghost
  • peithois = persuading, not enticing
  • kerygma = message, not preaching
  • arkhontes = rulers, not princes
  • mysterion = mystery, not testimony
  • pro-orisen = foresaw, not ordained
  • apodeixei = showing, not demonstration

In addition I changed some of the prepositions to make their meaning clearer.

During my rewrite I also looked at the Vulgate (Latin) and the New Jerusalem Bible (Grey English).

See also:

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I saw this on Blackgirl on Mars:

But I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living: and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are.

– James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name”

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typewriter_jpg-288x300A Black Americanism is a word or phrase that comes from black American English. It is a kind of Americanism. Some are found mainly just in Black English, some have crossed over into Standard English. Some you might think are Standard English but if you look them up in a dictionary, they are not there!

I divide Black Americanisms into three kinds according to their relationship to Standard English: the obvious, the subtle and the naturalized (the words in red are those that I have probably used on this blog):

1. The obvious: those that are so clearly black that most blacks readily drop them from their speech or writing when the circumstance demands Standard English, like at work or school. Many of these are seen as slang or improper English by both blacks and whites.


you is, she pretty, phat, hate on, done gone, I seen, she do, saditty, colorstruck, player (ladies’ man), to front (pretend), play someone, nigga, good hair, check one’s self, bougie, y’all, get busy, ho, conversate, might could.

2. The subtle: those that might seem to be Standard English but in fact are not. I thought all of these were Standard English till I looked them up:


wigger, anyways, inside of, all them, most everyone, dig (= understand), be into, whip out, lighten up, hooked on, go off on, get with it, get real, get it together, get one’s drift, get a clue, go broke, knock yourself out, to sweat someone, take the cake.

3. The naturalized: those that have crossed over into some level of Standard English. Most crossed over into white American slang, especially by way of jazz and hip hop, then into more formal levels of American English. From there some spread overseas.

“Informal” means it is all right for spoken English and for some kinds of writing, like for magazines, blogs and newspapers, but not, say, for government reports. “Vulgar” means not to be used in mixed company.


  • Americanisms:
    • Informal North American English: hooker, redneck, man (exclamation), dis, crib, Oreo (person), dude, to be strung out on something, jive, nappy, white trash, hustle (trick), knock up (get pregnant), two-bit, straight up, hood (= neighbourhood), whup.
    • Written North American English: down-home
  • No longer dialect:
    • Vulgar World English: dick, pussy.
    • Informal World English: okay, groovy, bad mouth, sweet talk, cool, be hip, vibes, yeah, not my bag, max, psych out, gig, funky, Mickey Mouse (adj), be with it, be wired, wing it, working girl, looker, get a move on, every which way, fab, come (= orgasm), put-down, goner, laid-back, quickie, sure enough, blow one’s mind, for real, bust (= burst), uppity, yo, cuss.
    • Written World English: go with (= date), jazz, banana, bogus, dead (no emotion), up on it, set-up (trick, frame), like crazy, lily-white, come down on, pimp, crying shame, crybaby, check it out, go along with, greens, two-faced, uh-uh.

I try to write in world English for this blog, so the World English ones are fine. All the rest are dialect: Americanisms, black or otherwise.

Sources: “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006), Clarence Major: “Juba to Jive” (1994).

See also:

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reading level

Reading level tells you how many years of schooling you need to read and fully understand a piece of writing. Sometimes on the back of children’s books or on the copyright page you will see something like “RL 4”, meaning you need four years of schooling to be able to read it.

To give you a rough idea of things:

  • 15+: Writing by generals and professors
  • 13+: Too unreadable for most people
  • 12: Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s  Bazaar
  • 11: Time, Newsweek
  • 10: Reader’s Digest, Cosmo, Plato, Gettysburg Address
  • 9:
  • 8: Ladies’ Home Journal, “Ivanhoe”, James Joyce, Abagond
  • 7: Pulp magazines, Steinbeck, King James Bible
  • 6: Comics, DH Lawrence, “Gone With the Wind”
  • 5: “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Micky Spillane
  • 4: nursery rhymes, books for grade school children

There is a website that can measure the reading level of blogs and most other websites:

For example, it says that this blog is written at a junior high school level, meaning it takes  seven to eight years of schooling to be able to read and understand it.

Here are some blogs from my blogroll and some other websites and how they score:

  • genius (over 18 years): The Economist.
  • college (postgrad) (16-18 years): New York Times, BBC, The Black Snob, Michelle Malkin.
  • college (undergrad) (13-16 years): the field negro, Raw Dawg Buffalo.
  • high school (9-12 years): Racialicious, USA Today, Andrew Sullivan, The Root,
    Steve Sailer, New York Daily News.
  • junior high school (7-8 years): Jack & Jill Politics, Abagond, Huffington Post, Stuff White People Like, Yahoo! News, What’s New Pussycat, New Yorker.

This makes sense: the New York Times is generally read by those with a university education, the New York Daily News by those without. The ads are pitched accordingly, by the way, with the Times having upmarket advertisers, the Daily News downmarket ones.

I love The Economist and think it is well-written, but writing at a genius level is generally a bad idea. You will lose most people simply because they lack the education for it. And even those you do not lose will have a harder time understanding you.

I think it is no accident that the blogs that were turned into books – What’s New Pussycat and Stuff White People Like – were both written at a junior high school level. It is no accident that the King James Bible is pitched at the same level.

So while some might look down on me for writing at a junior high school level, I think it is the right thing to do: the aim of writing is to be understood. So you want your writing to be as easy to understand as possible.

How to get the reading level for a piece of writing:

  • reading level = 0.4 x ((words/sentences) + 100 x (complex words/words))

where a complex word is any word of three syllables or more not counting endings like -ed, -es and -ing.

Some simple ways to make your writing easier to read:

  • Read it out loud.
  • Use short words. Avoid words of three syllables or more.
  • Use short sentences of 20 words or less.
  • Use short paragraphs of four or five sentences.

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newyorkerThis is my rewrite of the blog post “Michelle Obama and the Politics of Shifting” on Womanist Musings. I tried to preserve her opinions (which I do not completely agree with) but wrote it the way I would have. It is a writing exercise on my part.

Michelle Obama will be America’s first black first lady. Think of it: a black woman held up to America as the height of grace, beauty and intelligence! She is already being compared to Jackie O.

And yet even though Michelle Obama will look black on the outside, she will have to act like she is white on the inside. She will have to hide her blackness.

Many whites are comfortable with her as a buppie – a black urban professional. But when she lets her black side show, when she questions the built-in unfairness of American society, it starts to make whites uncomfortable.

Imagine, for example, if she brought up something as simple as serving collard greens in her interview with Barbara Walters. How would that have changed the interview? When you remind white people that you are black, it makes them uncomfortable. Americans are all supposed to be the same but they are not the same.

Barack Obama fed this lie when he said that there is no white America and no black America, just the United States of America. It is a lie because America is still divided by race, The death threats against him show it. But now Michelle is a slave to that lie. To be her natural black self would make too many white people uncomfortable and cost her husband the support he needs.

To make it to the top of American society you need more than just money. You need to act white too – or be cast out. Because the top of American society is that white. Whites set the unwritten rules for that level of society.

Why do Bill Cosby and Shelby Steele put down ghetto behaviour so much? Is it to help poor black people in the ghetto? No: it is to show rich white people that they are not one of “those people”.

Michelle Obama grew up as one of “those people”. She will have to distance herself.

As buppies the Obamas already act white to a degree. But now they will have to go all the way or find themselves shut out.

That New Yorker cover where Michelle has an Afro is a sign and a warning, even if it was meant as a piece of humour. It is a sign that natural blackness – like the Afro – is not acceptable to whites, that it is even a bit threatening. And a warning of the kinds of things that could come if the upper reaches of white America start to see the Obamas as “not one of us”.

So Michelle will have to hide her true black self in public and keep it to her private moments. Most public figures have to watch what they say and do, it is true, but for Michelle it goes beyond that to who she is as a person.

That is the price of success.

See also:

  • Michelle Obama and the Politics of Shifting – the post on Womanist Musings that this is a rewrite of.
  • colonial intelligentsia – how they have to walk a fine line between their own people and the colonial masters. Think Gandhi, Lenin and even Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Attic Greek idiom

Attic Greek idiom means the natural way of expressing yourself in the Greek of ancient Athens in Attica. It was not just the words and grammar that made Greek different from English, it was also how you expressed your thoughts.

Beyond the words and grammar of a language there is idiom: the common or natural way of saying things in a language. After all, you can follow the rules of grammar perfectly and use words with all their right meanings and still sound like you are from Mars. That is why people learning English sound so strange, like Borat.

Comparing Attic Greek idiom to English tells us as much about English as it does about Greek.

Attic Greek idiom was plain, simple, direct and clear where English has a bad habit of dressing things up in abstractions and metaphors, like bad Shakespeare. English is round-about, like a liar. Greek is sharp, like a knife. Greek prefers verbs and actors, English prefers nouns and states of being.

Attic Greek did have metaphors and abstract words, but nothing like what English has. This makes Greek seem shockingly plain to those who speak English. Translators have to fight the urge to dress up the Greek, a fight they do not always win. Even the same Greek word will be translated in different ways – not because it has a different meanings, but because it sounds bad in English to keep using the same word.

Some examples:

Notice how the Greek prefers people and verbs while English goes out of its way to use nouns:

English: After their departure
Greek: When they left

English: The combat began
Greek: They began to fight

English: The system of ancient warfare
Greek: How the ancients fought wars

English: Attempt his rescue
Greek: Try to save

English: Died on the field of battle
Greek: Fighting, he died

English: Suffer ill-treatment
Greek: Suffer terribly

English: No one can tell the number
Greek: No one knows how much

English likes to dress up simple facts in dead metaphors:

English: He came off the victor
Greek: He won

English: He was made a laughingstock
Greek: He became ridiculous

English: Matters were now ripe
Greek: Everything was ready

Where English likes to use abstract qualities – justice, beauty, utility – Greek likes to use “the” with the right adjective: the just, the beautiful, the useful. “The great and good” is a Greek turn of phrase. And so:

English: A lover of beauty
Greek: Loving the beautiful

From all this you should be able to tell that the phrase “the powers that be” is Greek. And so it is: it comes to English from Greek by way of Tyndale’s translation of Romans 13:1 in the New Testament, a translation that the King James Bible kept – but which most Bibles of the past 50 years do not. Instead they say “authorities that exist”. That is still partly Greek: the pure English idiom would be “existing authorities”.

– Abagond, 2008, 2017.

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