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America the Beautiful
2007, Q2 (July 29, 2007)
By Andrea Wenger

American flag
I was blessed to grow up near Philadelphia during the period when the United States celebrated its Bicentennial. As a child, I visited the Liberty Bell and traipsed along the same cobblestone streets that Benjamin Franklin had walked. I stood in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed and saw the chair where George Washington sat while presiding over the Continental Congress. And I felt the pride and humility of living in a land where freedom had been hard won.

As writers living in the United States, we have the right to express ourselves without the government clipping our words. (Only our editors have that power.) And we write in English — the most varied and versatile language in the world. With its precision and its expansiveness, English is well-suited to be the language of liberty.

Thomas Paine, whose words roused a nation to war, is perhaps best remembered for writing, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” But as E.B. White points out in The Elements of Style, the same sentiment phrased differently would have been far less memorable. White offers the following examples:
Times like these try men’s souls

These are trying times for men’s souls

Soulwise, these are trying times

Okay, so that last one borders on the ridiculous…but the meaning of all three sentences is identical to the original, even though the effect is not. Thomas Paine understood, as every writer should, the ability of cadence and rhythm and movement to create a powerful sentence. When people read to themselves, they don’t just see the words on the paper — they hear them in their mind’s ear. So the words you chose, and the order you put them in, affect reader experience.

As writers living in the United States, we have the right to express ourselves without the government clipping our words. (Only our editors have that power.
Some linguists and their followers espouse the superiority of earthy Anglo-Saxon words over their genteel Latin counterparts. Consider the word put, with its Germanic roots, and the word place, with its Latin roots. In general, these words mean the same thing, but place is softer. If I were writing installation instructions, I’d tell the user to put the unused screws in the trash, not to place the unused screws in the trash. Put is more direct, while place sounds fussy. But if I were writing a cookbook, I’d tell the reader to place the casserole in the oven, not to put the casserole in the oven. Place is more polite, while put can sound harsh.

So the key is knowing when to use the lilting Latin words and when to use the muscular Anglo-Saxon ones. There’s room for both — that’s why both have survived through the thousand years since William the Conqueror took the throne of England and changed its language forever.

Writers of English have choices. Most every word we commit to paper (or its electronic equivalent) has a synonym. We can push buttons, or we can press buttons — and here in North Carolina, we can even mash buttons. Push is stronger than press, and stronger words are often better. But I don’t want my readers to break the buttons. So I use press.

Parts of Speech

All Men are created equal, but all parts of speech are not. Verbs are the strongest, followed by nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, in that order. And all verbs are not created equal, either; conjugations of the verb to be are particularly passive, and often a sign that the action lies elsewhere in the sentence.

Writers of English have choices. Most every word we commit to paper (or its electronic equivalent) has a synonym.
I recently encountered a translation into English that read: The service brings simplified access to information, a reduction in costs, and an increase in productivity. Though structurally sound, it’s dead on the page. Strings of such sentences can hypnotize readers until they read only words without processing the meaning. So I changed the sentence to: The service simplifies access to information, reduces costs, and increases productivity. Not exactly Pulitzer-worthy, but at least it moves.


Words can sing or jolt, they can zip or grind. Sentences can frolic gently in the fields, or they can scratch like a cat trapped up a tree. Writers compose music through their combinations of syllables — whether sweet or jarring, invigorating or soporific.

Does any of this affect reader comprehension? At the very least, if you keep your readers awake, they’re more likely to understand what you’ve written. The more technical the material, the more crucial every aspect of writing is — from clarity to lyricism. Mix your sentence length. Use the simplest word, yet the most apt. Keep your verbs active and your nouns concrete. Eliminate unnecessary modifiers. Punctuate flawlessly.

Writing that uses syntax and sound to propel the reader through the text requires an awareness of language, but not an extraordinary investment of time. With practice, it becomes second nature.

That said, I’m not suggesting you throw out consistency in favor of an exciting turn of phrase, or that you bog down the user with prose that aspires to poetry. The rules of technical writing still apply. But don’t be afraid to surprise the reader with a word that expresses your humanity. Even technical writing shouldn’t sound mechanical — at least not all the time. As William Zinsser says in On Writing Well, “Words are the only tools you will be given.” Make the most of them.

Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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