More than 30 years ago, when I was teaching freshman English, it was reported that 27 million American adults were illiterate, a fact somewhat related to the development of media and its effect on human consciousness. It seems that people who grew up with the spatial medium of television are not likely to write as easily as those who grew up with the linear medium of books and newspapers. It’s an interesting theory and perhaps a comfort to those who blame themselves for not being able to write easily. Before we talk about writing, let’s talk about language—specifically, words and their meanings.
Words have different meanings, known as denotations and connotations. Denotations are the meanings found in dictionaries, and connotations are meanings that attach themselves to words and come and go through usage. We might say something is “cool,” for instance, by which we mean it’s “impressive” and has nothing to do with temperature. There are also two different types of words—concrete and abstract. To distinguish between them, remember that concrete words name things that can be experienced with the senses, like “bell,” “book” and “candle,” whereas abstract words like “love,” “hate,” “truth” and “justice” cannot.
Because speech preceded writing, all words were once concrete. In fact, concrete words can be found at the root of many abstract words. Take the abstract word “repair,” for instance. If you break it into two parts, you get “re” (meaning to go back to) and “pair” (which comes from the Latin word “patria,” meaning “father”). So, to repair something means to restore it to its original state.
The word “disaster” is even more interesting. Once again, break it into “dis” (a prefix meaning something that’s bad or negative) and the Latin word “aster” (meaning “stars”). Thus, a disaster can be understood as “bad stars” and confirm an ancient belief in astrology.
Similarly, when we eat a bowl of cereal in the morning, we might be reminded that we’re being nourished by the harvest of the ancient earth goddess Ceres. I’m sharing this to show that words can be interesting and powerful, and that concrete words are typically more interesting than abstract ones.
Many inspectors learned their trade by working in construction or with their hands. They often are described as being handy, but being handy is not much help when it comes to writing. There are different types of writing, but the general aim is to communicate efficiently. “Communication” comes from a word that means “to share,” and sharing is what good writing is all about. The following three examples of writing have nothing to do with home inspection, but they illustrate my point. The first is from an essay by John D. Stewart called “Vulture Country”:
The eagles, buzzards, kites, and falcon are already on the wing, quartering the plain fast and low, seeking reptiles and small game. But the vulture sits on a crag and waits. He sees the sun bound up out of the sierra, and still he waits. He waits until the sun-struck rocks and the hard earth heat up and the thermal currents begin to rise. When the upstream is strong enough, he leaps out from the cliff, twists into it and without one laborious wingbeat, spirals and soars.
There is much to admire in these sentences, but notice the concrete words and how the sentences act in the same way as the vulture and make us “wait” until the moment it leaps from the cliff and soars. This is an example of descriptive writing at its best. Here’s another fine example, taken from an essay by N. Scott Momaday, titled “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” which describes lands in Oklahoma sacred to the Kiowa.
The hardest weather in the world is there. Winter brings blizzards, hot tornadic winds arise in the spring, and in the summer the prairie is an anvil’s edge. The grass turns brittle and brown, and it cracks beneath your feet. There are green belts along the rivers and creeks, linear groves of hickory and pecan, willow and witch hazel. At a distance in July or August the steaming foliage seems almost to writhe in fire. Great green and yellow grasshoppers are everywhere in the tall grass, popping up like corn to sting the flesh, and tortoises crawl about on the red earth in the plenty of time.
Once again, the sentences are rich in concrete words and details, and I’m confident that you understood them even if you weren’t interested in the topic. However, I’m equally confident that you won’t understand the next example. I certainly don’t. It was written by a professor and quoted in George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.”
On the one side we have free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities.
I don’t know how you feel about this example, but one can only guess what he’s trying to teach because it’s a clutter of pompous and abstract words that babble on in search of meaning. The professor’s prose is immortalized as bad writing.
Something that can be equally dull and confusing is grammar. In traditional grammar, we distinguish between two “voices”—active and passive. Here’s an example—the first sentence is written in active voice; the second sentence in passive voice.
Trees lined the street. The street was lined with trees.
Both sentences are examples of expository writing, or writing that’s intended to convey information efficiently and without necessarily evoking emotion, in contrast to the previous descriptive writing examples. Although such distinctions are somewhat arbitrary, expository writing is what we’re interested in as home inspectors.
Consider how the active and the passive voice are formed. In the sentence using passive voice, the subject (“trees”) has changed places with the object (“street”). You can recognize a passive sentence by noticing if it employs a form of the verb “to be”—in this case, “was” with the past participle “lined.” The active sentence is shorter and more vigorous, and that’s what you should remember. Just try to be direct and write as simply as possible. Staying on the topic of grammar—specifically, parts of speech—it’s worth remembering that the power of an English sentence is in the verb, and verbs are action words, like “run,” “walk,” “jump,” and “swim.”
Okay, let’s move on from grammar—its rules were not made in heaven, the best writers often violate them, and it can be really dull. Instead, let’s look at more examples of expository writing (as opposed to descriptive writing) related to the home inspection industry. The example that follows is a quasi-legal statement full of fancy abstract words that appeared on the first page of my reports when I was doing inspections. Its purpose was to protect me from scoundrels. You are welcome to use any or all of it in your own reports.
In accordance with the terms of our contract, the service recommendations made in this report should be completed within the contingency period by licensed specialists who may well identify additional defects or recommend upgrades that could affect your evaluation of the property and its components.
Here’s another quasi-legal statement that I took from another inspector’s contract.
Consultant does not turn on, or otherwise cause to [be] activated, any gas–fueled utility, nor light gas-pilots or activate any gas-fueled appliance not functionally in service at the time of observation.
With the exception of the word “be,” which was missing and I added within brackets, this sentence is exactly as it appears in his contract. I wonder what he means by “not functionally in service at the time of observation”? You don’t have to decide, because the whole thing is bloated nonsense that I wrote about many years ago in my book Inspect and Protect (available at www.lulu.com). This is an excerpt of what I said:
What does he mean? Perhaps he wants to say: “If the gas is off, I won’t turn it on or light pilots.” And if that’s what he wanted to say, why didn’t he just say it?
Getting back to our main subject of using the right language, consider the following six rules in George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive when you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign word or phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Orwell’s essay was written more than 70 years ago and parts of it are dated, but it taught me something about human nature as well as language. “The great enemy of clear language,” he says, is “insincerity.” Considering the clause in the inspector’s contract for a moment longer, no one will ever convince me that he’s being sincere. Similarly, no one will ever convince me that the average summons and complaint that accompany a lawsuit are written with a sincere desire to communicate openly and honestly.
In upcoming articles, I’ll talk more about words used in the inspection industry and in lawsuits. In the meantime, if you want to chat about the industry, I am a retired home inspector with time on my hands. I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 208-916-8263.
Keith Swift was born and raised in England, and after traveling through the Mideast and the Far East, he immigrated to the United States. He earned a doctorate in 1982 with a dissertation on the work of W.S. Merwin, who was appointed poet laureate in 2010. After teaching at California State University for a few years, Keith obtained a general contractor’s license, together with a certification in asbestos, and embarked on a career as a residential and commercial building inspector until retiring in 2016. He enjoys reading and writing and working with his hands, and sharing what he has learned with others.