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November 02, 2018 Friday 12:17:13 PM IST


Expert Counsel

A prominent writer in English, who is also a Member of Parliament, recently hogged twitter headlines when he announced about his new book by promising that it would be a four- hundred-page exercise in “floccinaucinihilipilification”. Even as people who read the tweet were scurrying around searching for the meaning of the word (it means habit of estimating something as worthless), came the next tweet from the author. Becoming apologetic, he said that his earlier tweet had given rise to an epidemic of “hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia”. For the ease of the readers, he himself informed in the same tweet that the word meant a “fear of long words”! Though it was obvious that the writer was not one who was suffering from this condition, he hastened to add that his new book did not contain any words longer than “paradoxical”!

Though the tweets were said to be intended as a ploy for marketing the book by informing the public about its arrival in a rather unusual manner, the use of these words caught the imagination of people. It had something to do with the personality of the author, who had earned a well-deserved reputation as a knowledgeable, articulate, charming and popular person. He had, on earlier occasions, introduced to the Indian public words such as “farrago” (meaning jumble), “rodomontade” (meaning boastful) and troglodytes (meaning crude or savage persons). While there was a section of the twitterati who expressed consternation at the use of such unusually long words which were difficult to pronounce, some of the others found this to be amusing and responded by using similar words.

While going through this kind of exchange, one’s mind gets transported to olden days. More than four decades ago, when my father taught me the basics of cricket, with the intention of improving my command over English language. His theory was that once I was hooked to the game, I would start reading articles about it which were written mostly in English!  He was absolutely spot on and my love for the written word was triggered by my passion for the game. Once I started reading about cricket, it was only a matter of time before I was introduced to works of fiction in English.

As a child, my favourite authors were Enid Blyton, R. K. Narayan and A. J. Cronin, in that order. The reason was simple -- these writers were excellent story-tellers. They wrote in a language that even a child could understand. There were no long or complicated sentences and there would hardly be any words, the meaning of which I could not understand. The stories were captivating and told in a manner that made it difficult to put down the book, once reading was started. It was easy reading all the way, with barely any need for referring to the dictionary.

However, as one grew up, one started getting exposed to authors who believed in writing long and complicated sentences, which were peppered with words that one did not understand. While it is a fact that studying works of such writers served to improve vocabulary, it brought down the pleasure associated with reading considerably. It should also be mentioned here that the subjects covered by such authors were of a different nature and might have justified use of such words. But, nothing could have prevented them from breaking down the long sentences used into shorter ones, which would have made life easier for the readers.

 After joining government service, my reading started getting extended to judgments of various courts of law and tribunals deciding on matters of indirect taxation. Here I found that sentences were even longer. In addition to difficult words, one had to face the challenge thrown up by phrases in Latin as well. It is true that the topics covered in these case laws are complicated ones to which sharp legal minds apply considerable expertise and experience at their disposal. This, along with the fact that statutes are worded in a manner and style different from those employed in common parlance, make the task of comprehending them even more difficult.

Why is it that authors tend to use words and phrases that are difficult to understand and write such long and complicated sentences?  As a person who occasionally indulges in the habit of writing, I can say that there exists a line of thinking that the practice conveys an impression of scholarship. A person who writes long sentences peppered with rarely used words is considered to have better command over the language than one who writes prose which is simple and easy to understand.

While it is not in doubt that writers, in general, are better off than others in terms of word power, what separates a good author from a mediocre one is the skill with which he finds the appropriate word for the occasion. Many a time, a simple word or phrase understood by all would convey the message much better than a bombastic one, which could be comprehended by only a few. However, only good writers, who possess abundant self-confidence, are able to conquer the propensity for displaying their vocabulary while putting pen to paper.

The other reason is that writing short elegant sentences in simple language is an art that few can master. It was Steve Jobs who famously said that simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication. Though stated in the context of designing computers and laptops, this principle holds good for all walks of life, and is especially true in the area of writing. Only a writer who possesses an exceptional command over language and its nuances can find the right word and turn of phrase to express his thoughts cogently, in simple words. Thus, rather than conveying a message of erudition, long and complicated sentences communicate an inability to put across a point in precise and concise terms.

Writing, like speaking is a form of communication. Unlike the spoken word, the written one carries the advantage that it would remain etched in print for all time to come. A person who puts his thoughts and imagination to paper does so with the intention of reaching out to as many people as possible. Thus, the essential reason for writing is to communicate and not to display any personal prowess. Simplicity, brevity and elegance are the pre-requisites for effective communication and an author who breaks this cardinal rule runs the risk of reaching out to a smaller population.

One hopes that the action of this famous author in conveying the message about his new book by employing rarely used long words and the discussion it has triggered, prompts writers to choose phrases which are simple and easy to understand. Upcoming authors should do well to remember that prose carrying complicated sentences and incomprehensible phrases would be considered by lay public not as a demonstration of proficiency but as an instance of failure of its creator to find a simpler alternative.

I would like to conclude by quoting George Bernard Shaw, who when asked about alliteration, commented that he was not impressed by it though some plots used it to give a better effect to their works. But he chose to add

“In vain do fools often strive

for apt alliterations artful aid”

Such is the beauty of language when seen by the eyes of a connoisseur! 

Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is Chairman and Executive Director Of Rubber Board. 
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