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Author Topic: The sentences worth keeping  (Read 282 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: May 29, 2017, 09:14:27 PM »

Language is only a tool for expressing ourselves, and it is simply an accident of history that many of us speak or write in English to do so. If it were not for a naval explorer of Portuguese descent named Fernão Magalhaes who took an impractical westward route from Spain in 1518 to get cloves for his Spanish patrons, dying three years later upon reaching an archipelago that he had just named after St. Lazarus, the Philippines probably would still be a loose cluster of Malay-speaking fiefdoms. But that was not to be. The Spaniards came back 44 years later to rule the islands for almost 400 years, until the Americans routed their naval armada at Manila Bay in 1898. Unlike the Spaniards, who found the Filipino masses unworthy of the Hispanic tongue, the Americans gladly taught us English so we can assimilate their political ideals and culture faster. We probably would still be making do with any of our 169 regional languages if they did otherwise. In any case, we still would have had to learn the grammar and vocabulary of whatever predominant language any of our alternative futures would have given us. There would still be good writers and bad writers among us whether we wrote in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, or Tausug.




The real issue in writing well is therefore not the language we choose; it is how good we become in using it. Once the choice is made, we have to master as much of it as possible: its words, meanings, form, grammar, structure, diction, and pronunciation. With English, which has become our second or third language, this really should not be that difficult. We have had it for nearly 100 years—an exposure to the world’s wealthiest, most robust language that is shorter only to India’s in the whole of Asia. Had we taken full advantage of this accidental linguistic heritage, in fact, the Philippines would perhaps now be producing some of the most accomplished writers in the English language.

There is ample proof that one need not be a native speaker of English to excel in it. Two of the finest English-language prose stylists that ever wrote were non-native English speakers. Vladimir Nabokov, author of the highly acclaimed but controversial English-language novel Lolita, wrote in his native Russian and began writing in English when he was already over 40. Joseph Conrad, author of the classic English-language novel Lord Jim, was a native Pole who started writing in English as a third language (his second was French) when he was already 32. In recent years, of course, there’s the English-language prose stylist V. S. Naipaul (A House for Mr. Biswas, Half a Life), a writer of Hindu ancestry from the Creole-speaking country of Trinidad who was to win the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. Their key to success was mastering English, assiduously applying it to the writing craft despite the limitations of not having been born to it.

Mastery of a language, however, is not enough even if one is its native speaker. Writers must grapple with an even more fundamental aspect: coming up with something worthwhile to write about. Then like everybody else, they still have to weave the strands of their ideas into a coherent fiber. This is the creative aspect of writing, the process of invention itself. And whether writing a novel or dashing off a quick feature story, rare is the writer who can accomplish this during the first attempt. Even the best of writers are solitary Thomas Edisons trying a thousand times to perfect an incandescent bulb.

A persistent myth that intimidates many beginning writers is that good writers can come up with a torrent of well-organized sentences, paragraphs, and expositions simply as an act of will. That is farthest from the truth. Some of the most accomplished English-language writers, in fact, were or are indefatigable researchers. Charles Dickens kept scores of notebooks for his works, meticulously scribbling plots and outlines in them and making copious marginal notes. And when one reads, say, Truman Capote’s parajournalistic novel, In Cold Blood, or William Shirer’s World War II history, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, one immediately sees that the sheer amount of detail in the work could only have come from patient, meticulous research.

Good writers begin to put their ideas into words and whip them into sentences and paragraphs only after they have gathered more material about their subject than they will ever need. But even those sentences and paragraphs are by no means the final thing. They are movable, malleable, changeable. They are simply stages of discovering and clarifying precisely what the writer wants to say. With each draft the writer gets nearer to achieving the full realization of his initial creative impulse, and in whatever language he writes, he makes sure that only the sentences worth keeping are what remain in the final draft. (circa 2003-2004)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently appeared as Chapter 19 in the Usage and Style section of his book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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