William Zinsser on How to Write English as a Second Language

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 07, 2010 1 min read
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Once in a while, I come across a piece of writing via the Internet at work that is just too good to read while I’m in work mode. I print it out and savor it while sitting on a comfortable couch at home with a cup of tea close at hand.

I came across such a piece today in The American Scholar (actually, it was noted by Utne Reader and passed along by @andreshenriquez on Twitter, where I saw it.) William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, which I’ve read and keep on a home bookshelf, has given a speech on writing to international students at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which has been published in the American Scholar.

I started reading and immediately could tell the speech-turned-essay is honest and wise and funny advice to English-language learners. It’s loaded with good examples and as my former writing teachers would say “great turns of phrase.” It is too good to skim.

He explains two sources for English, Anglo-Saxon languages and Latin. He urges second-language learners not to aspire to be like some politicians who use long words of Latin origin that are unwieldy rather than simple Anglo-Saxon words. But the way he says it is so much better than I have just written. He says: “The words derived from Latin are the enemy--they will strangle and suffocate everything you write.”

I had to stop reading or I felt I would spoil enjoyment of the piece. I’ll carry it home in my briefcase and settle down with it this evening.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.