Is my writing style overly complicated?
May 22, 2013 9:28 PM   Subscribe

I learned English as a second language (native is Finnish). The emphasis in school was on vocabulary and very basic grammar; we did not to my recollection deal with stuff like passive voice etc. So in terms of writing in English, much of my "voice" has developed simply from what sounds right inside my head. However, I've been told that the way I write is overly complicated. Is this so?

I never try to complicate my writing with unnecessary stylistic choices or fancy words. I believe that anything that makes it more difficult for my point to get across is detrimental to the writing. Yet, at the same time, I don't think one's writing should simply cater to the lowest intellectual denominator.

Anyway, occasionally when I let others read what I write, they suggest I simplify things. It's not necessarily bad advice, but it has made me a bit concerned over the quality of my command of the language. The trouble is, my natural way of constructing sentences is, I suppose, unnecessarily verbose - yet it is most natural for me. For instance, I was responding to something on Facebook and quipped the following: "By default, I just assume that any insect the nutritional habits of which I am not aware of, is one that sucks blood."

A friend of mine pointed out that I could have just said something like, "If I don't know what an insect eats, I assume it sucks blood." Okay, fair enough.

My question is, would that be better writing, grammatically? Phonetically? Is it simply easier to understand? A sentence like that just sounds so... I don't know. Inflexible? Rough?
posted by Unhyper to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

I may have written, "By default, I just assume that any insect whose nutritional habits I am not aware of is one that sucks blood" because it is slightly easier to understand, but not much less verbose. I don't think either version is "better" but I also don't think there's anything wrong with writing in your own voice--someone complimented once me on my ability (tendency?) to do this and I resolved to never change it because I consider being able to sound like myself when I write a good thing. I can see how it might be problematic in something like a work environment--where you need to be able to communicate something succinctly and not waste people's time rambling on (those people are the worst)--but if it's in a casual interaction like Facebook, don't take your friend's comment seriously enough to become self-conscious about it. I personally find people who talk/write the way you do more interesting to converse with, in most cases.

(See how long my answer was?)
posted by lovableiago at 9:38 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your post here does sound complex and formal. Whether it's overly complicated is a matter of personal interpretation and also context. Usually Facebook is a pretty informal arena, and thoughts are often expressed without regard to grammar or spelling. Academic journal articles, however, usually require a more formal style.

Your specific example is actually not grammatical - "of which I am not aware of" - you don't need to put "of" in twice; it's sufficient to write either "of which I am not aware" or "which I am not aware of". The former is falling out of common use even though I would argue it is more correct; however language changes.

You could also have written, "By default, if I am not aware of an insect's nutritional habits, I assume it sucks blood." That construction is grammatical, more formal than your friend's suggestion, and more easily understood.

I think it's useful to be able to express yourself in several registers. I have a large vocabulary (in English) and frequently use it, partly because I love words and I love knowing when there's one that captures a particular nuance even though a more common word might get the meaning across better. But I can switch registers as well, particularly if I get the sense I'm not being understood, or want a more informal tone, or want to avoid "showing off" for various reasons. Ultimately, it's your own style, do what you like!
posted by Athanassiel at 9:41 PM on May 22, 2013 [10 favorites]

Yes, your sentence sounds both clumsy and grammatically incorrect to me as a native English speaker and writer. Your friend's suggestion is more fluidly written and much easier to read and understand off the bat. I personally would have said, "By default, I just assume that any insect whose nutritional habits I am not aware of is one that sucks blood." (I happen to be pretty verbose compared to my friends, too.) I am finding lately that the simpler a sentence is, the more powerful an impact it can have. YMMV.

For what it's worth, I think you could expand your awareness of different writing styles by reading more. Pick up famous works by authors like Austen, Twain, Rowling, and Steinbeck to expose yourself to some seriously excellent sentence construction. The more you absorb as a reader, the more natural your writing in English might become.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:48 PM on May 22, 2013

There are two sides to your predicament.

The first is that, as a learner of English, you may have a different grasp of the line between formal and colloquial language. There are many "registers" of both spoken and written English and their nuances are subtle and difficult to master. Also, they change all the time.

The second is that English-speakers have a complicated and often inconsistent set of beliefs about their own language that connect to age, gender, education, and class. They like to obsess about contradictory advice from a whole slew of grammarians, they believe that syntax has some kind of moral dimension, and they like judging the writing and speech of others.

So, yeah, a twofold problem. Finnish is different from English in many aspects other than the vocabulary (you guys have a gender-neutral third person pronoun!). It's possible that you build English sentences with a Finnish flavor. But don't discount the fact that linguistic anxiety is a big part of English-language culture and that most of your acquaintances have been brought up to be unconscious language chauvinists.
posted by Nomyte at 9:48 PM on May 22, 2013 [11 favorites]

First of all, your command of English is way better than that of many native speakers.

Both of your "sucks blood" sentences make sense. Which style is better? It depends so much on context. In my opinion, the second one is funnier and easier to understand. Though on Facebook I think that it's great to express yourself in whatever voice comes naturally.

The only other language I know is French. When I write an email for work in French, it's usually longer and more formal than the same email would be in English. Otherwise, it could be perceived as being rude. In English, at least in North America, we like it when sentences are simple and straight to the point. It's not rude or rough. The ideas can still be complex.
posted by beau jackson at 9:49 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your question as posed reads well, so don't beat yourself up about your command of English. I'd guess that a lot of your voice/style is drawn from books and the written-conversation hybrid of online prose, which tends towards broader vocabulary and slightly more complex sentence structure than the spoken word. On preview: Nomyte is also right to note the devilish nature of register.

I'll pick on that particular sentence: it's got a heavily backloaded clause in the middle, and backloaded clauses create tension. Lots of languages have grammars that set up a lot of strands early and knot them together at the end, and you can certainly do that in English, but it's often perceived as formal and slightly old-fashioned. Paring down and polishing places where your writing gets strung out like beads (for instance, "the quality of my command of the language", -o--o--o) will make a difference without sacrificing your voice.
posted by holgate at 9:52 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

To start: I think your command of the language is fine.

I believe that anything that makes it more difficult for my point to get across is detrimental to the writing. Yet, at the same time, I don't think one's writing should simply cater to the lowest intellectual denominator.
These two beliefs are slightly in conflict, and peoples' writing ends up at different places on the spectrum of complexity depending on how much weight they give to each belief for a given text. For instance, some literary writing is very difficult to read (see James Joyce) but this is considered part of its strength. When writing emergency instructions however, you definitely should err on the side of utter simplicity.

Two things spring to mind reading your post and example sentence

1) you say you don't try to use fancy words, but many of your choices in this post stand out to me as uncommon/fancier than necessary. You may have a stronger vocabulary than you realise. (examples: 'detrimental' could be 'bad for', 'to my recollection' could be 'as far as I remember', 'quipped' could be 'joked' (quipped is uncommon)).

2) the more clauses in your sentence, the harder it is for people to understand. Using my own highly informal methodology, your sample sentence is grammatically ok, but it has three layers of clauses.

(By default), I just assume that (any insect (the nutritional habits of which (I am not aware of)), is one that sucks blood)

Your friends suggested replacement is only one layer.

If I don't know (what an insect eats), I assume (it sucks blood).

Your sentence is fine, but it is definitely a more complex construction than necessary. It's up to you whether you're ok with that or not - if you feel people are misunderstanding you or skipping your writing because of the complexity, you should probably dial it down. And if you feel that you couldn't write it more simply, then you should make an effort to learn how, because clear communication skills are always worth having (and this is not a reflection on your language skills - as Mark Twain noted, it's easier to write a long complex text than a short simple one!). If you know you can write simply and clearly when necessary, but you like the way you write now? Go nuts.

(FYI, I certainly wouldn't consider my own writing a model of simplicity here!)
posted by jacalata at 9:52 PM on May 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

I grew up with British English, went to college in the US, and now live in the US. What I've noticed is that there is a bit of a divide between British (and maybe European?) English and American English. I'm overgeneralizing a bit, but based on the books I've read and, well, the people who've graded my papers, British English seems more accepting of compound sentences and the passive voice, and American English favours simple sentences and the active voice. So the reaction to what you write may depend on the reader and your own preferences. To me, you're perfectly understandable. You probably write better than many native speakers of English, really.

That said, if you wish to improve your writing, you may want to check out The Elements of Style and style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style or the New Oxford Style Manual. I learnt English grammar in school for 12 years, and while I never had a problem with writing grammatical sentences, those books really helped me to express myself better in writing. Hope this helps!
posted by peripathetic at 9:53 PM on May 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

To me it sounds like the difference between being conversational, or being very precise as to what you are expressing. Conversational writing is how most newspapers are written, for instance. The New York Times is a bit advanced, but an AP article will be conversational. The key is for information to flow and to express something in as few words as possible. Sentence structure should always be the same. Subject and then verb. Not too many conjunctions. Avoid dependent clauses that need to be offset by commas. Active sentence structure, not passive. If you want to write like that, you can. But it does indeed take a little practice. Phrases like "of which I am" would never be allowed. And you wouldn't be allowed to end a clause in a preposition like "of" either.

For what it's worth, I tripped over your Facebook quip. I had to read it three times to understand it. Reading is not the same as hearing. If you had said it, I would've gotten it fine because it's very passive for me to listen. Reading, I am doing the work. And I think when people read, they skim and predict the content in their minds. What you wrote was not predictable because it followed an usual sentence structure connected by a lot of conjunctions, commas and prepositions. It's not about using small words vs. "fancy" or big words, it's about organizing information in the most direct, fastest, simple way possible, which is not what you did.

If you want to be more conversational, read up on newspaper writing.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:54 PM on May 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

Clear writing is not just about using small words. The reason your sentence is difficult is that "insect" is very far from "sucks blood," and is also far from "one" which is referring to the insect. When I say far, I mean that they are separated by a bunch of words, and also by a bunch of complex clauses with other subjects and verbs in them.

To simplify things, you can use not only short words, but also short clauses. You can put subjects, verbs, and objects near each other if they are part of the same thought. That is why the alternative sentence is better - short clauses, subjects closer to their verbs. If you're interested in learning more about difficult sentences, you can check out Ted Gibson's research at MIT about garden path sentences.

So, yes, your sentence is overly complex. This is not about formal vs. informal. It's about the fact that you have to keep "insect" in your working memory for a long time while you parse through other parts of the sentence to get to the end. If all of your writing is like that, I can see why people would think it's overly complex.

(On preview, what jacalata said. The "layers of clauses" analysis is exactly what Ted Gibson does at MIT to show which sentences are easy and hard.)
posted by htid at 9:57 PM on May 22, 2013 [14 favorites]

I was a journalist; every word mattered. Try this exercise -- start removing words ruthlessly until you can't remove any more without significantly changing the literal meaning of the sentence. Start cutting.

Anyway, occasionally when I let others read what I write, they suggest I simplify things.
When I let others read what I write, they suggest I simplify.
When others read what I write, they suggest I simplify.
Others suggest I simplify what I write.

You are not condescending to your audience when you do this. This is writing in the style of Hemingway, and no one accused him of talking down to anyone.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:58 PM on May 22, 2013 [30 favorites]

Your question is well-written and perfectly cogent, but I agree with the suggestion to simplify. You refer to your mental process as your "voice", which is apt, because you're writing as if you were speaking: "Anyway", "I suppose", "yet". These rhetorical bookends are nice for setting the pace of speaking, but they can come off as florid if used too frequently in writing.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:04 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with htid, jacalata, Cool_Papa_Bell: "Yet, at the same time, I don't think one's writing should simply cater to the lowest intellectual denominator" has the same content as "Yet writing shouldn't cater to the lowest intellectual denominator" in twice as many words, a more complex sentence structure, and much the same tone.

"Simple" doesn't necessarily mean "dumb". "Energy is invariably conserved" is a simple statement with profound implications.
posted by gingerest at 10:23 PM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

"In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written: you have no idea what vigour it will give to your style."

--Sydney Smith
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:26 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Every now and then a Dutch friend or colleague will ask me to copy edit something they've written, and the biggest issues in their texts are passive voice and (IMHO) excessive wordiness. I think they're common and understandable 'tics' for non-native English speakers. It doesn't strike me as a big deal, especially as I speak only toddler-level Dutch.

Your FB response did strike me as a bit wordy and haughty (don't use a $10 word when a 10c one will do!), but it's an off-the-cuff social media blurt and I wouldn't beat myself up about it. I also wouldn't overly identify with a writing 'style'. The way we write evolves over time. Sure, you could be more mindful of paring back the language you use - heck, we all could. Just don't think of it as an attack on who you are or how you think. Writing simply and clearly is difficult.

Also, buy a copy of Strunk & White and keep it with you always.

Yikes. I've never been more self-conscious of my writing in responding to an Ask before!
posted by nerdfish at 10:53 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also spent most of my childhood speaking a Finno-Ugric language. Agglutinative languages train you to shape your thoughts differently. It took me many years to adopt the American style of English. Even now, I have to stop and arrange my words for clarity.
posted by 99percentfake at 11:00 PM on May 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

There are languages that make a clear distinction between common language and formal written language. Often this is reflected in complicated sentence structure and use of formal words, even if there are more common and more readily understood words that would express the same thing. I don't speak Finnish so I don't know if this applies to Finnish, it certainly applies to German. If Finnish makes that kind of distinction read on. If not what I am about to say may not be relevant.

English generally does not make that distinction.

For example, I am a native speaker of German. I now live in Switzerland after spending more than a decade in the UK. I work for a multinational. Our corporate language is English. Every few weeks I get a newsletter in my inbox that contains general information relevant to our German, Austrian and Swiss operations. There are also tabs for each country with country specific news. Both the general and the Swiss sections are in English to accommodate the large number of anglo saxon expats in our Swiss operations. In these sections the sentences are short and concise. Technical terms are used as required but the writers do not strive for obscure words for example.

The Germany section is in German. Sentences are needlessly complicated, go on for ever and give me, a native speaker of German, a headache. In both cases the authors are similarly educated, they do the same kind of work and are trying to express the same kind of information...

My theory is that in Germany there is a degree of snobbishness associated with use of language. The more educated you are, the more complex your sentences seem to become, the more obscure your word choices. You are trying to set yourself apart from mere mortals, less educated people need not understand what you want to say. That 'snobbishness' does not seem to exist in English speaking parts. Pick up a high quality English newspaper. You will find that sentences are not generally very long, nor words needlessly obscure.

As I said in the beginning, I don't know if this plays into it. But you do seem to indicate that you value precision in your expression more than clarity. And that's what my German colleagues would say if I put it to them that they use needlessly complicated language.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:11 PM on May 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Your sentence is almost-grammatical English (the second "of" is superfluous, but I suspect that was just an oversight). Compared to many European languages, the average grammatical complexity of a written English sentence is quite low. Partly I think that this is because -- especially compared to Finnish -- English is weakly inflected, which can make a sentence harder to interpret when the word order gets more complex than subject-verb-object.

Perhaps a larger consideration is that it's simply a matter of fashion: if you look at a lot of writing from the 1700s and 1800s, it's pretty convoluted by today's standards. Here's a sample from Samuel Johnson, who was an absolute literary superstar in the mid-1700s:
This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth: those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible.
(But note that even here the sentence structure is quite linear.) Perhaps the change is in part because English is now a world language and your sentence may be read by a lot of non-native speakers. Also, most native speakers don't learn any formal grammar, and would probably have trouble constructing a sentence like yours confidently.

Usually I'm thinking about my audience when writing. Who's going to see this? How easy is it for them to understand? In your example sentence, I would have used a similar formal style, because (as I see it) it's a humorous comment and the slightly formal tone adds to the humour. If someone can't be bothered to read it, disaster will not ensue. If I'm communicating vital information to a number of people, I'll usually simplify as much as possible to make it absolutely clear and unambiguous.
posted by pont at 11:44 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a famous quote from Blaise Pascal, where he apologizes that a letter is so long, because he hadn't the time to write a shorter one.

I would write something like you when I'm in a hurry, but if I'm making an effort, I would try to correct anything that makes it difficult to read.

For example: "By default, if I am not aware of the nutritional habits of any insect, I just assume that it sucks blood." The sentence is almost as long, I have not dumbed-down the vocabulary, but "assume" and "it sucks blood" are no longer on opposite ends of the sentence.

"By default, I will assume an insect sucks blood, if I am not aware of its nutritional habits," would be fine for grammar and understandability, but it would lose the comedic timing of ending with, "it sucks blood."
posted by RobotHero at 12:33 AM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

My question is, would that be better writing, grammatically? Phonetically? Is it simply easier to understand? A sentence like that just sounds so... I don't know. Inflexible? Rough?

Hey, I'm a fellow verbose motherfucker. The problem with your sentences (and mine) is that while you have an instinctive understanding of the overall shape and size of the thought you're trying to express, other people do not.

A sentence is a bit of a roller coaster ride --- when you launch into a subordinate clause, you have a sense of about when the comma's going to drop, and the thought will turn and start heading downhill for home.

Your readers do not --- a long, tricky clause in the middle of a sentence is a period of rising tension of indeterminate length, and if it goes on too long it can become almost unbearable, as the person struggles to hang on to the bit of meaning they latched on to at the beginning to the sentence. If it goes on too long they lose their grip, and when the clause ends and the sentence kicks back in again they're derailed.

(Squinting....metaphor _almost_ works, let's go with it.)

Partly this is a matter of personal style choice. Henry James is regarded as one of the finest American novelists, and his clauses run on for days, with semi-colons sprinkled through at intervals like an April shower. You are perfectly free to embrace your inner Hank, say damn the man, and continue merrily subordinating.

However, lots of people don't read Henry James because they find him impenetrable. If you do want to be more easily understood by more people, then I'd try reading your sentences out loud to yourself. If you find yourself stumbling, or sticking inadvertent pauses in where you don't have commas, then chop up your paragraphs a bit, break long sentences into two or three separate thoughts. You'd be surprised how often a thought that seemed perfectly crisp and simple in your head will end up typing your tongue in knots when you try and read it aloud -- at least, I am.
posted by Diablevert at 1:02 AM on May 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

Is my writing style overly complicated?

You use words like "detrimental", you tie yourself in knots trying to avoid ending sentences with prepositions on Facebook (!), and you use semi-colons and dashes. You also have awkward syntax, which is presumably more to do with you being a non-native speaker than a style issue, but it doesn't make things easier.

(Reasonable people can disagree about semi-colons and dashes, but for me they are the sign of someone who knows the rules but has no style, or didn't have time to edit what they wrote, or both. If I see them in the abstracts of science papers I read, I first go and make coffee, because I know the next hour is going to be a slog.)
My question is, would that be better writing, grammatically? Phonetically? Is it simply easier to understand?
Yes to all. Not least because your sentence is ungrammatical.
A sentence like that just sounds so... I don't know. Inflexible? Rough?
Why would you want your writing to be "flexible"? Unless you're going for subtext or allusion, it should mean what you mean it to mean, and only that. As for "rough", people can go too far with blunt Hemingway-type writing (Hemingway did, for example), but it's by far the lesser of two evils.

My advice is to read Strunk and White (which has an enormous number of problems, but again, is the lesser of evils).
posted by caek at 1:49 AM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Päivää! I taught (advanced) English to Finnish- and Swedish-speaking Finns for a couple of years. In Ekenäs/Tammisaari mainly, and a few students in Helsinki (if you guessed the Helsinkilaiset worked for Nokia, you are correct - the flip side was that being an English speaker there always meant I was assumed to be a Nokia employee, geh). Indeed, the biggest hurdles after punctuation (especially commas) and articles were voice and complexity.

This was a very familiar question, so you're not alone: My question is, would that be better writing, grammatically? Phonetically? Is it simply easier to understand? A sentence like that just sounds so... I don't know. Inflexible? Rough?

Finnish and English have near-opposite approaches to grammar and voice. Grammatically you're doing better than many native English speakers, so don't worry there. As for voice, the best thing you could do would be to find a conversation group with native English speakers - there are plenty in Helsinki. It's the most direct route to getting the hang of different registers and how certain ways of speaking are interpreted by natives.

The reason for this is that Finnish constructions, while sounding clear and dryly humorous to fellow Finnish speakers, do tend to come across as overly precise to English speakers. As you've seen in this thread, "overly precise" carries different baggage in different cultures. In the US it's often seen as intellectual, which is generally not viewed well - this is why you can see "haughty" and "snobbish" used to describe it/similar language here. Having lived in Finland, I know this is not your intent. Long story short, voice is subjective, not objective; this is why participating in a conversational/subjective context (as opposed to educational/more objective) will help you a lot more for developing different registers. I don't think style guide books will help much since Finns get all of that in school, often better than native English speakers; it's closer to objectivity than it is to learning a conversational voice.

Another option is to brush off excessive criticism with "if you understood my point, I suppose I'm doing well" :) I've been in France for nearly 15 years now, and know I have my non-native tics in French too. Yet there are certain people (not specific to any culture, you meet them everywhere) who will ALWAYS nitpick speech/writing. Even to native speakers, which you can see pretty easily on forums and Facebook. It can get upped a notch with non-native speakers for no other reason than it's that much easier to criticize.
posted by fraula at 1:55 AM on May 23, 2013 [12 favorites]

I am South Asian and learned English primarily through reading and grammar lessons at school. My family and I speak English in a way that is technically correct but we don't speak the way native English speakers (English people, Americans, Australians etc) would speak, because it's not that sort of language for us; we aren't surrounded by it, and a lot of the time we don't think in it.

I learned English in, I guess, a technical rather than an organic way.

As a result - according to my English friends - I speak "like an Enid Blyton character". You know what, though, I just own it. I like having a distinct voice.

My question is, would that be better writing, grammatically? Phonetically? Is it simply easier to understand? A sentence like that just sounds so... I don't know. Inflexible? Rough?

It's hard to answer this! It's entirely subjective and based on the context. (Edit: Did you notice what I did there? My natural style is filled with redundancies!) But I think that for the purposes of getting your point across, you would be better off with shorter sentences that you don't have to think too much about in order to parse.

The trouble is, my natural way of constructing sentences is, I suppose, unnecessarily verbose - yet it is most natural for me.

Yep, I am just like you! I write for a living now, in England; so I have had to adapt my (verbose, meandering) writing style for readers who are (1) native English speakers and (2) busy. This second consideration has helped me pare down my writing from its natural fussiness to something more precise, that takes less time for a busy reader to parse. I do this by writing a first draft in my natural voice and then going back over it with a fine-toothed comb and taking out all redundancies, replacing all multi-syllable words with shorter ones, breaking up one compound sentence into two or three shorter ones, etc. For your Facebook quip, I probably would have initially written something like your sentence, then gone back over it and pared it down to something more resembling your friend's.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:06 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

While I agree that simplifying is impotant and your example sentence is a little awkwardly constructed, I also think that your friends just don't like that you make them feel dumb by comparison. My advice is to be yourself, and don't dumb yourself down for others. Your original version is much more entertaining to read than your friend's version.

People are lazy and don't like to think too hard, but you don't have to stoop to their level.

(For reference: I'm a native American English speaker, and the daughter of a former newspaper editor.)
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:12 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a student in the UK, I wouldn't blink an eyelid if I came across your construction etc. when reading a formal or highly technical academic piece or - most commonly - older writing. However in an undergraduate essay it often either represents padding or an attempt to mask how little you really have to say or because you haven't had time to edit it down - or because you think it will make you sound more intelligent, in which case it is often rather clumsy and obvious.
Basically if there is a dissonance between the content of your sentence and the style of it (or between different elements of your style - say syntax and word choice) then it's going to look slightly odd.
This is something which a lot of writers have exploited for humorous effect, and your version of the Facebook post is much more amusing!

I think it is something to be aware of - and it is a useful skill to be able to modulate your style to suit different contexts, but as a non English speaker I wouldn't worry about it too much. Although if you need to be easily understood for some reason then I would advise attempting to simplify your writing - and bear in mind that some people will construe your style as pretentious!
I grew up reading old books and consequently have a similar problem with my natural writing style, which I have to consciously correct. I haven't bothered to much here because it is fun to indulge in it sometimes!
posted by an opinicus at 2:18 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

(Also for reference, it's 4:00 a.m. and I still can't sleep, so apologies for typos!)
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:20 AM on May 23, 2013

Great advice on the thread but I just wanted to add something that really helped me understand how the Voice of my native language was seeping into my written English: I picked up a well regarded novel in my native language, translated a bit of it into English and then compared it to the canonical, celebrated English translation.

It was appalling how much of the original voice of the author was lost in the canonical translation. And, yet, my own translation which sounded so much more like the original wasn't really proper literary English. Translation is a prickly, debatable subject but the experiment really makes you understand how English speaking natives expect you to express yourself even if the feelings or ideas you are trying to convey have a very cultural flavor.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 2:34 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

What you describe (receiving criticism for stilted writing) is (or should be) basic practice in academic writing. Everyone, literally everyone, starts off with convoluted ways of expressing simpler thoughts. Then they edit.

So as an editor, I would look at "...the nutritional habits of which I am not aware of" especially, and ask myself,
-- is the phrasing "nutritional habit" not overkill regarding the general level of the discussion?
-- is the construction "of which I'm not aware of" necessary? Your friend's solution is more conversational but no less precise..

Editing is crucial, always. It's not about better grammar (yours is fine) but about getting your points across as clearly as possible. As a thesis supervisor, every day proves for me that the quip "murky words reveal murky thoughts" is true.

Then there's the question of the "voice" or persona a writer assumes. There are analogies to acting here; it's not entirely self-evident what to choose in certain contexts. In your insect phrase, you assume something like a "PhD persona" to talk about nasty little blood suckers. Your friend doesn't comment about language, necessarily, but about the discrepancy between stance and topic. It's funny even; like Bugs Bunny singing a serious opera aria, just the other way round.
Howard S. Becker's Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article addresses this topic - an entertaining book to read, in fact.

[passive voice is a whole 'nother can of worms. My theory is that it's a psychological reflex: people don't dare to own what they write, so they let some unnamed entities do stuff instead]
posted by Namlit at 3:12 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yet, at the same time, I don't think one's writing should simply cater to the lowest intellectual denominator.

I kind of disagree. Writing simply doesn't mean an inability to convey complex thought. I guess it depends on what you mean by 'lowest intellectual denominator' but if we're talking about the ability to even understand the thought in the first place, then yeah, the writing shouldn't stand in the way.

Writing is in service to ideas, not the other way around. Lyrical writing or prose is different than everyday writing and if it wasn't we'd probably all need to strangle each other for the emails we'd be sending.

Your friend's sentence is the stronger one.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:56 AM on May 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

The key to effective written communcation is simplicity.
posted by BenPens at 4:17 AM on May 23, 2013

"By default, I just assume that any insect the nutritional habits of which I am not aware of, is one that sucks blood."

I assume that you were thinking about something like this:

1) Oletan että jokainen hyönteinen jonka ruokailutapoja en tunne imee verta.

or, if you are similarly wordy in finnish:

2) Oletusarvoisesti oletan, että jokainen hyönteinen jonka ravitsemustaipumuksista en ole tietoinen, on sellainen joka imee verta.

Is (2) your style? If not, then this is more a case of unconscious use of finnish structures in english, and all of the small repairs you need to make them work. Relative clause in (1) is simple, and you could use 'whose'-structure (jonka) like lovableiago for same effect. For some reason you went into different direction 'of which' (jonka) and ended up with a complex structure where object of relative clause is raised to before the relative pronoun. This puts lots of look-at-me emphasis to 'nutritional habits', and it may be intentional or just a result of trying to fudge finnish relative clause order to english syntax.

Another factor is vocabulary. For second language english user frequency of a word doesn't come instinctively. We don't live our days using and hearing english, we use english for special purposes and there rare words can be common. For me it is a roll of a dice would 'feeding habits', 'nutritional habits' or 'what it eats' come first in mind when trying to find a word to express that idea. Then it is a slow evaluation process within options that happen to come into mind to decide which could be the most suitable for intended register. In speech there is often no time for that and word choices may come as odd or self-important.

Usually if I'm not hurry, I can catch when there is too much fudging going on to achieve a syntactic sentence in my writing. Then there is an easier word order available. Or split to several sentences. Writing in english is a two step process: 1) put your thoughts on paper as a 'sentence'. 2) reassemble those words (they are not your thoughts anymore!) to look like simple english and find the suitable replacements for unintentionally odd word choices.
posted by Free word order! at 4:18 AM on May 23, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm not a native speaker myself so maybe I shouldn't be posting here. That said, I agree with many commenters here that your example sentence was clunky (though easy to understand). It is a good idea to improve your writing and to make it feel more natural.

However, I disagree with others about the best way to do so. In particular, Strunk and White's book is more than flawed and does more harm than good. Similarly, take all advice about the "passive voice" with a grain of salt -- as has been demonstrated by the experts at Language Log, many who rant about the passive voice have a hard time correctly identifying this grammatical category even in simple examples. In fact, I second the point above that the advice given by native speakers about their own language is often misleading or flat-out wrong, and for reasons unknown to me this is true especially for English.

Native speakers of English often know little about grammar or stylistical principles. What (many) native speakers *are* good at is actually writing correct, natural, beautiful English sentences. So the best way to get better at writing English is simply to read the best English writers (in your field) and to pay attention to their style, grammatical usage, vocabulary and so forth. Also you should write more and maybe get others to point out your mistakes or stylistical problems. Just keep in mind that when it comes to citing rules or general principles, a native speaker may be in no better position to make correct judgments than you are.
posted by faustdick at 4:38 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

First off, your English is very good. It's so good that I am finding myself being very, very careful with my own written response.

There are, however, few common problems that Finnish-speakers have in English which might be creating issues for you. This might be part of what's making you sound clunky or formal.

- Faustdick is right, to some extent, about the passive voice. There is one area where this makes a big difference, though: English lacks Finnish's "reportorial passive". Few native speakers would say or write "A building is being built downtown", for example, and that's considered bad usage. We'd use the unnamed "they": "They're building a building downtown," which lets us avoid the passive voice completely.

- Finnish tends to, for lack of a better explanation, stick a lot of the meaning in a sentence into descriptors around the most important nouns. That seems to be what you're doing in your example sentence ("any insect the nutritional habits of which I am not aware of..." / "jokainen hyönteinen jonka ruokailutapoja en tunne"). English doesn't do that. We' d say something like "If I don't know what an insect eats, I tend to assume it sucks blood." In other words, English likes to cluster the important parts of the meaning of a sentence around the verbs. I know that's a clunky explanation, but it's the best one I've got.

- Finnish has fewer synonyms, so Finns tend to go hog-wild with synonyms when speaking English and end up with several different registers in one sentence. In a work context, the most formal registers are rarely used (they're for literary writing or high-level journalism, mostly).

For English learners of Finnish (waves hand), the Finnish uses of the passive, participles, and constructions like the second infinitive which can act participle-like, are all extremely difficult to understand, much less get a grip on. We also get tangled up in vocab issues and end up pasting Finnish suffixes like "-han" all over the place to try and re-create the meanings of different English words. So I feel (the reversed, much less advanced version of) your pain.

Weird advice: you might want to look at some articles in the New Yorker and pay attention to the style as a model. The New Yorker is written for informed people reading casually. Many of the nonfiction articles have a tone of...urm..."highly educated informality" (?), which seems to be what you're going for in your English writing.
posted by Wylla at 4:52 AM on May 23, 2013 [7 favorites]

[passive voice is a whole 'nother can of worms. My theory is that it's a psychological reflex: people don't dare to own what they write, so they let some unnamed entities do stuff instead]

Yes, this is much more important than whether your words are fancy. I like fancy words personally, if you use them because you want your meaning to be as specific as possible. But passive voice is a problem. The reason many writer/editor/teacher types consider passive voice a problem is not because it is formal but because it obscures the agent of the action. When you use passive voice in English, you muddy up the actual meaning of the sentence (except in exceptional cases, where you *want* the agent to remain vague). This lack of agency is why using passive voice makes the prose sound kind of dead.

Just look at the difference in meaning specificity and liveness between
many writer/editor/teacher types consider passive voice a problem
passive voice is considered a problem
(I'm not saying my slashy/ sentence is good, but it is clear who is the agent.
posted by third rail at 4:54 AM on May 23, 2013

You know what? I prefer your sentence. It's more interesting to read. And it's funnier.

"If I don't know what an insect eats, I assume it sucks blood" is not a quip, it's a statement of fact. All it says to me is that the writer doesn't know much about insects.

However, the way you put it, it's clear you are making a joke and the rhythm of the sentence sets the reader up for a nice pay off. (You can lose the second "of" though).

I think language is more than a means to convey simple information in a simple fashion. There's joy to be had in it, too.
posted by Life at Boulton Wynfevers at 4:54 AM on May 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

My writing style was heavily informed by high school English composition class. At least a couple of times, on the first day of class when discussing writing, my teacher wrote on the board "KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid." Assuming the students are literate and capable of writing an essay, high school teachers deal with two different sorts of challenging students from this group: those with very complex thoughts who attempt to fit them into the most complicated yet grammatically correct sentence structures they can come up with, and those who don't know much but pad their writing with flowery affectation because they think that this makes them sound "formal". The latter would come up with something like "nutritional habits," even though I am guessing you are translating that from something that sounds more colloquial in Finnish.

The discipline I learned in high school was constant and relentless editing. If my grammatically correct yet meandering compound sentence could be split into two or simpler sentences, I did that. If a concept that takes three words could be better expressed in one word, I changed it. (Eg, in this comment, the clause "high school teachers deal with" originally read "high school teachers tend to deal with"). After re-reading this comment, I would probably chop a few more superfluous things, but I don't have the time to go over it.

Now I do a lot of academic writing which requires more complexity and precision, and this advice helps me to this day because it helps make my writing clear and accessible rather than obscure.
posted by deanc at 4:58 AM on May 23, 2013

Third rail: "This lack of agency is why using passive voice makes the prose sound kind of dead."

...and that's a way better statement of the Finnish/English issue I was referencing. In Finnish, the lack of agency in many sentences is a feature, not a bug. In English, lack of agency bothers us so much, we tend to create an agent even where there isn't a clear one, using the mystery "they" or "you."
posted by Wylla at 4:59 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

we tend to create an agent even where there isn't a clear one, using the mystery "they" or "you."

And yet standards of written English frown upon the "mystery you", in preference to "one" or the passive voice. Even "they" gets singled out for the same reason as the passive voice-- it obscures the agency. Journalists have a similar nasty tic by using "some say" or "many argue that..." You just want to take out a red pen, circle the offending words, and write "Who???????" next to it.
posted by deanc at 5:32 AM on May 23, 2013

I say it depends on how you would prefer to be perceived.

(Caveat: I tend to be an overly complicated writer as well).

I am a native American English speaker, and I suspected you were a non-native English speaker, based on your sentence structure and word choices. I work with a variety of non-native English speakers around the world, and it's often interesting to me to see the differences in word choices and sentence structure to convey a thought. Personally, I find your writing to be fine, and had no issues parsing your intent. I think the question you need to ask yourself is, "Am I ok with others identifying me as a non-native speaker?" If you are, I say carry on as you are.
posted by RogueTech at 6:24 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Finnish, the lack of agency in many sentences is a feature, not a bug

I know nothing about Finnish, so I won't comment on this specifically.

However, I've heard the same argument a tad too often in relationship to, at least, Swedish, German and Dutch. Like: 'it's usually expected in certain writing contexts that you make use of the passive voice.'

My point, "it" "is" not "expected" at all. The choice of voice, be it active or passive [keeping my disclaimer above in mind] is a function of logical thought. It must be specific, functional.
If an author, specifically, believes that a process she describes is the result of some collective "it just happened" effect, the passive voice is the only way to express this adequately. Most of the time, however, even large collective efforts are the result of actual people doing actual stuff, and so they should be described.
The active voice, on the other hand, is in scholarly contexts also often misused, especially in the phrase "This paper argues that." Most of the times, such arguing papers reveal later on that their writers are actually really smart. Why then do they begin their discourse with such an inane-beyond-belief phrase? Because it's expected, and everyone else does it.

People who expect that writers use the passive voice can be convinced by these writers that their expectation is short-sighted, by using both passive and active voice with full authority [so there's a grammatical angle to it after all. We can't have how many subjects in one single sentence].
posted by Namlit at 7:07 AM on May 23, 2013

If you had said nothing more in your post than, "They suggest I simplify," I would have known you have a writing problem. When someone suggests you simplify, they're almost always right.

Clear writing is a form of kindness. Whenever you make the reader worker harder than she has to, you're engaging in mild abuse.

If you want to improve your writing, I'd suggest working with an editor. As a part-time newspaper reporter in my teen years, I found that having my work torn apart every day by my boss was invaluable training.

Here's how I would rewrite your post:

I don't know what to think when people suggest I simplify my writing. The way I write sounds natural to me. For example, I wrote, "By default, I just assume that any insect the nutritional habits of which I am not aware of, is one that sucks blood." A friend said it would have been better to write, "If I don't know what an insect eats, I assume it sucks blood." Is he right? To me, his version sounds so... I don't know. Inflexible? Rough?

I don't intentionally write convoluted sentences packed with fancy words. I just want to get my point across. At the same time, I don't want to dumb down my writing. What's your advice?
posted by markcmyers at 7:28 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a native speaker of North American English, so I can't address the bilingual aspect of all this (as has already been done above!) But, to me, your writing is a little complicated. Your example sentence took me three reads to understand. So, kudos to you for reaching out to get some help on improving your style and clarity!

That said, I don't see many recommendations for books to help you get there. I highly recommend Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Williams and Colomb. It's not nearly as preachy as Strunk and White (who don't even acknowledge when they break their own rules!) and is written as a series of guidelines rather than rules. They explicitly address passive voice and when it is okay to use it and when to avoid it, along with other great style and editing tricks to make your writing more coherent.

With that book I learned great techniques and then when it is okay to break them. It really forced me to edit my writing (which often sounds great in my head too, and then I have to go back and edit for clarity.) Writing demands craft because we lack context and common ground (two very important sources of information we use constantly during conversations.) So as writers we must be extra-clear with our language because they are not available to us. The Williams and Colomb book makes that very clear and gives you good advice and exercises so that you can practice.
posted by absquatulate at 7:34 AM on May 23, 2013

I think FreeWordOrder got to what I was going to say, which is that non-native speakers often bring over some of their language's natural structure when they write English, and the result is something that may be technically correct but that is written in a way that a native speaker would never think/write, so that the latter has to slow down and sort of look again to be sure s/he got the meaning. As an editor, I see this sort of thing quite frequently and try to correct it gently -- i.e., while I prefer your friend's sentence, there are some rewrites of the original that are closer to your voice while being easier to read (as others have suggested).

A similar thing can happen with vocabulary -- that is, words that are common in Finnish may have translations that are uncommon (or high-falootin) in English, while there are very common equivalents that translate slightly differently. So sometimes a German speaker (more familiar to me) sounds like they're "using a 25-cent word where a penny word would do," but in fact they're just using the word that sounds more familiar to them personally and have no idea that its usage is so much more restricted in English.

I agree with whoever suggested reading. Whether you read classics or more modern work, just try to read (lots of) engaging books by well-regarded writers and you'll probably find that your instinctive sense of the language will adapt a bit naturally. In fact, in addition to "literature" you might want to read some books that are written in an explicitly more colloquial style, like classic "private eye" series or espionage thrillers, which will help you distinguish the more intellectual or academic style from a simpler but equally effective approach -- not "dumbed down," but just a bit more everyday.

Good luck! English is easy to learn, and very hard to be really fluent in, for just these reasons (and the ungodly proliferation of idioms). But you can get a lot closer, for sure.
posted by acm at 8:19 AM on May 23, 2013

It may help to have a process. All my writing students learn to apply Richard Lanham's Paramedic Method to their sentences. The method allows a writer to deconstruct a sentence, decide what's important, and distill the verbiage down to what matters.

From the OWL:
  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
  2. Draw a box around the "is" verb forms
  3. Ask, "Where's the action?"
  4. Change the "action" into a simple verb
  5. Move the doer into the subject (Who's kicking whom)
  6. Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups
  7. Eliminate any redundancies.
I use this every day.
posted by answergrape at 8:26 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite books for this is "Style" by Williams and Colomb--it's not just an ESL issue, EVERYONE could use a good lesson in clarity.
posted by Grandysaur at 11:00 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your English reads as native, so don't worry about your command of the language. You do write in a formal way and your comment on Facebook uses much more sophisticated language than I'd expect most people to use there.

A lot of people have said to use smaller words, but it may be helpful to know that words with German or Old English roots tend to be more casual than words with Latinate roots regardless of length. There are historical reasons for this that most English speakers aren't explicitly aware of, but I think most people will agree with these classifications:

more formal > less formal
assume > guess
nutritional habits > what it eats
insect > bug

An important exception to this rule is old words that have passed out of common use, like "reckon" or "quip" - though they are still used normally in certain regional dialects, because they've become rare they've developed a certain gravity. I wouldn't use the word "quip" unless I felt I was repeating "said" far too much, for example, and your use of it above struck me as a bit odd. If you're in doubt about how common a word is, google it and check the result number against similar words to see which is more common as well as usage examples.

Please don't read Strunk and White. If you want to know about the passive in English you can read this, though the take-away is that it's not something you need to think about.
posted by 23 at 9:14 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a native North American English speaker. You write better than some native English speakers, but I still had trouble reading your question. Other MeFites have given you a ton of great advice, but don't feel like you have to read Strunk and White unless you want to and feel like it would help you. I was never able to get myself through any grammar or style books, because that's not how I learn. I learn by reading and emulating the way others use language, so that's how I'm going to structure my answer.

Here is your question the way I would have written it (I am not going to rewrite the ungrammatical "By default, I just assume that any insect the nutritional habits of which I am not aware of, is one that sucks blood." noted above, even though it makes me twitch):
"I learned English as a second language (my native language is Finnish). When I was in school, my teachers emphasized vocabulary and very basic grammar; we didn't deal with stuff like the passive voice. Much of my "voice" has developed simply from what sounds right in my head, but I've been told that the way I write is overly complicated. Is that true?

I never try to complicate my writing with fancy words or unnecessary stylistic choices. I don't think writing should cater to the lowest intellectual denominator. At the same time, though, I think that anything that makes it harder to get my point across is detrimental to my writing.

When I let others read my writing, they suggest I simplify it. It's not necessarily bad advice, but it makes me worry about my English. I guess I naturally construct sentences in an unnaturally verbose way. For example, when I responded to something on Facebook, I wrote the following: 'By default, I just assume that any insect the nutritional habits of which I am not aware of, is one that sucks blood.'

A friend of mine pointed out that I could have just said something like, 'If I don't know what an insect eats, I assume it sucks blood.' Okay, fair enough.

My question is, is that a better approach, grammatically? Phonetically? Is it simply easier to understand? A sentence like that just sounds so...I don't know. Inflexible. Rough."
Having rewritten your question just now, I stripped out a lot of unnecessary "sentence guts," wrote sentences in the active voice, used simpler words, and rearranged both sentences and parts of sentences.

When I write, I tend to actually read what I've just written out loud to myself. I can't always trust what sounds right in my head the first time. I think about who I'm writing to and what I'm writing (a Facebook post, a post on Metafilter, an academic paper, etc., all of which have differing levels of formality). I sometimes rearrange sentences, remove parts of sentences, and restructure my paragraphs multiple times before I'm happy with them. I had to read my answer, and my rewrites, out loud to myself multiple times before I was okay with them. This answer took me forever, because I read and revised it a billion times.

Writing and revision are things that even native English speakers struggle with. If you read a lot, practice a lot, and listen to feedback, you will improve. The voice in your head sort of adapts over time, and gets more accurate the more you read and revise your writing.
posted by topoisomerase at 12:48 PM on May 24, 2013

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