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How Good is Your English?

Writing is primarily about communication: transferring an idea from one person to another. This is something we all have to do whether it be in our professional or personal lives. This process can be smooth, or it can be the very cause of conflict! As such, the power of words must be wielded well and, while it can seem like a complex system, in reality everyone can learn to identify what makes good, and bad, English.

We're all guilty of making the odd mistake in grammar, relying too much on spell check or even confusing homophones (two words that sound the same but have different spelling and meanings, e.g. 'hear' and 'here'). However, a good writer is also aware of many other pitfalls when writing creatively or professionally:

Tautology

In today's fast-paced lifestyle, it's especially important to be concise (the ability to say as much as possible in as few words as possible). This means being aware of tautologies (unnecessary repetitions). For example:

'He died in a fatal car accident.' (If he died, then obviously it was fatal.)

'She wanted to find a safe haven.' (A haven by definition is a safe place.)

'The dress cost me $100 dollars.' 

'It was 3:00am in the morning.'

Stating the Obvious

Stating the obvious is another enemy of conciseness, and it can also be insulting to the reader. For example:

'Peter didn't feel very well after his car rolled three times.' (The audience could probably work that out for themselves.)

'Jane accidently walked into a wall.' (This raises the questions as to whether she normally does it deliberately.)

Ambiguity

John Marsden (in Everything I Know About Writing) explains how ambiguity in words can often lead to confusion. Writing must be clear so the reader doesn't interprets what was meant the wrong way. John gives this example: 'I had a very literate dog named Alby. One day he sneaked into the Staff Room at the school where I worked. The cleaners had left a big sign saying "WET FLOOR". So he did.'

Mixed Metaphors

Metaphors can be a great creative tool to help your readers feel the weight of a certain situation. However, if two or more metaphors are mixed, the affect can be disastrous. Take this example:

'Obviously, it's been a very difficult two days for us,' Nelson said. 'We kind of saw the writing on the wall Friday night. It's just apples versus oranges, and it's not a level playing field by any means.' ('Seabury’s Football Team Done for the Season.' Lawrence Journal-World, Sep. 22, 2009.)

Clichés 

Clichés are everywhere: in TV shows, newspapers, the way we speak to each other, and much more. They are phrases that have been used so much they have lost their impact, and yet we subconsciously rely on them in lieu of making an effort to be more interesting. Some examples include:

'She ran from the building like a bat out of hell.' 

'I guess every dog has its day.'

'He decided to kill two birds with one stone.'

'She was as thin as a rake.'

All in all, clichés  should be 'avoided like the plague'.

Obfuscation 

Obfuscation is simply the art of turning a simple idea into something hard to understand, full of big words, and unnecessarily long (something of which politicians are frequently accused). It is usually an attempt to sound knowledgeable or better than others, and yet it often proves the opposite. If your audience has to read a sentence twice, it's not a good sentence, and people will most likely respect you more if you communicate simply and clearly. 

To Finish

There are many other examples of bad English, but by learning to identify the above, your writing will begin to improve. Good writing involves a lot of editing, so don't be afraid to go over (and over) something, and if you're still not sure how it reads, speak it out loud. If you can say it without verbally tripping, most likely it will read smoothly as well.

Good English, including spelling and grammar, means good communication, and that in turn means better relationships both in the personal and professional worlds.

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