11th April 2015, 12:56 PM
Learn how to master English by Sayyad Saadat Ali Shah
What is good English? It is wrong to think that one can write English by mastering a few rules of grammar. There was never a greater delusion. Rules of grammar do count but they are not the whole matter. Thus it is possible that one may write English which may be grammatically correct but may not still be good English.
The Pakistani student is in a particularly difficult position in acquiring the knowledge of English because it is a foreign language – foreign to him in spirit, in origin, in traditions and in genius. He cannot be blamed if he finds it difficult to master the intricacies of English idiom and usage.
The secret of writing good English does not lie in memorizing the rules of grammar but in developing the habits of clear thinking and expression. As Matthew Arnold has put it so beautifully: “Have something to say and say it as clearly as possible.” Most of the students in Pakistan have an involved style because they have either nothing to say or say it as vaguely as they can. Perspicuity or lucidity is the first requisite of a good style. The writer’s chief aim should be to convey his ideas to others as clearly and lucidly as possible. In order to attain lucidity, he should avoid confusion of ideas, vagueness of expression, repetition of argument and use of slang (عامیانہ الفاظ یا محاورے) and bombast (بیجا عبارت آرائی).
Pakistani students should specially guard against the use of difficult and out-of-way words and expressions. Most of the students labour under the misunderstanding that the only English worth writing is the English overloaded with difficult words and phrases. They prefer long and high-sounding words to simple and familiar words of everyday prose because they want to dazzle the reader. They do not realize that a bombastic style is a thing of the past and provokes ridicule rather than admiration. They should therefore, make it a point to use simple and familiar words and avoid difficult expressions as they would avoid the devil or the plague. H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler in their valuable book The King’s English have given the following practical rules in the domain of vocabulary;
o ‘Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
o Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
o Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
o Prefer the short word to the long.’
What is Composition?
In its wider sense ‘Composition’ means the expression of our feelings, ideas and desires by means of words. Words may be spoken or written, so composition is necessarily of two kinds ---- oral and written. Both these forms of composition are equally important and are very closely connected. We have to be careful in the choice and use of our words in speaking and in writing. If we learn to speak clearly and exactly, we shall be able to write exactly and clearly. But writing requires greater clearness and exactness than speaking does. In speaking what we have to say can be made effective by the tone of our voice, the expression on our faces and by the movement of our hands but in writing we have to depend entirely on the sense conveyed by the words we use. So a great deal of accuracy is needed in writing. Sir Francis Bacon has rightly said that writing makes an exact man. Writing tends to make a man exact because he cannot write well about a subject unless he knows the subject well. To write well you have to be clear in your own mind as to what you are going to say. Have something to say, is, therefore, the first requirement of all writing. Only by being clear and definite in your own mind about what you are going to write can you make your writing clear and interesting to the reader.
In order to improve your English Composition, you must keep on writing, for it is practice alone that makes perfect. There are numerous subjects for you to write on; you meet interesting characters in your everyday life; you see funny sights on the road or on the playground; great and small things are happening in the world everyday; all these offer you themes to write on. All these offer you valuable opportunities for self-expression. Apart from helping to develop your powers of composition, the constant habit of writing on all kinds of subjects will increase your general information. If you record your day-to-day experiences of life in a diary regularly, this intimate type of writing will give you ample practice in self-expression. The habit of keeping a diary is very helpful in building up one’s personality and power of expression.
Observation and Imagination.
There are various kinds of composition and in all these observation and imagination are necessary. In a piece of purely descriptive writing, when you are describing a scene or a building or a journey for example, your observation counts for very much. Unless you have carefully noticed the details of the scene or a building or journey, your description will be flat and uninteresting. Therefore, you should observe things around you carefully. Keep your eyes open always, and notice things. All good writing needs imagination. In description, in the essay, in the short story, everywhere imagination is needed. You may have to describe a thing you may not have actually seen or experienced: for instance, if you are describing the adventures of a Rupee, you would have to use your imagination: you must see with your mind’s eye a rupee passing from hand to hand see what happens to it in the hands of men of different character, misers, businessmen and so on. Or again, if you were describing a street accident, your writing must include the feelings of the persons involved and that calls for the use of imagination. Give your imagination a free play when you are writing on topics of this nature.
Speaking in English as often as possible is very helpful in the development of one’s powers of expression. A good deal of our speaking has to be done in the mother-tongue but the student may profitably increase his opportunities of English conversation with persons of recognized taste and culture. If we speak in correct and idiomatic English, whenever we speak in that language, our written English will be all the better for it. The style will also gain a natural flow and conversational ease.
Further a good deal of useful reading must be done. To write well a full mind is required, and reading is one of the best means of making the mind full, though reading alone is not sufficient. Thought and imagination should go hand in hand with profitable reading, so as to develop our faculties of original thinking. The masterpieces destined to remain masterpieces are built to last. They should be preferred to second-rate books. It would be a pity to miss Jan Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the sake of Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentazen. The zest that we put into our reading is one of the proofs that we are alive. Modern books are as valuable for us as are the modern clothes. All of them are not to be condemned as trashy and cheap. They are the part of ‘the very air we breath and the task of reading them is easier. Educated persons in Pakistan will do well to read The Wall Has Two Sides – A Portrait of China Today by Felix Greene to understand the present-day trends in a rapidly developing neighbor-country. The contemporary books will mostly not be so fine from a literary point of view, but they are written by people like ourselves and written about people like ourselves and are written with ourselves in view as readers. Our reading exercises a very great influence on our composition. Books influence our style by making us familiar with certain ways of expression and certain modes of thought. But we must be careful that we read only good books. There are so many good books to be read that we have no time to read cheap, trashy and bad books. Badly written books exercise a very bad influence on style, and if we acquire a bad style in our early days, it is not easy to shake that slipshod style afterwards.
You should consult your teachers and other persons of knowledge and culture as to what you should read. You may also read the leading articles in standard newspapers, magazines and periodicals. But you should avoid imitating slavishly the language of the ordinary newspaper reporters because they frequently use hackneyed expressions and catchphrases of all kinds. Desultory reading is not or much use. Ruskin says in his Sesame and Lilies: “First of all I tell you earnestly and authoritatively that you must get into the habit of looking intently at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning syllable by syllable nay letter by letter. You might read all the books in the British Museum and remain an utterly illiterate, uneducated person, but if you read ten pages of a good book with real accuracy, you are for evermore in some measure an educated person. The entire difference between education and non-education consists in this accuracy.” It is therefore, essential to make frequent use of the dictionary in the course of your reading.
We have already pointed out that good English is that which is spoken by the majority of educated people and written by the best writers of the day. Hence the reading of good English must play an important part in the writing of good English. Indeed many eminent authorities insist that this is the only satisfactory way in which you can learn to write good English and that the study of grammar does little or nothing to improve the speaking and writing of good English. They advise that you should model your work upon the writings of the great masters of English language. R. L. Stevenson one of the great English stylists says that ‘he played the sedulous ape to William Hazlitt’ for several years in order to evolve a really effective style of his own. Whether we agree with this advice in its entirety or not, there can be no doubt as to the supreme value of the study of literature as a valuable aid to the writing of good English. A well-known writer says, “If you wish to write and appreciate good English, you must read and study the books where good English is to be found. Therein the great books of the present and the past you will find the best possible models, words used as only great craftsmen know English, and stories of sublime achievements and heroic deeds that hold children from the play and old men from the chimney corner.” All this will fire your imagination and stir your enthusiasm for great literature; and once that has happened your difficulties will almost have ceased.
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