Around the world, there are some 300 million native speakers of English.
And another one to two billion people who have learnt it as a second language.
Most tutorials on writing in English presume the student is a native speaker, but the authors of this new series take a wider view. We live in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, a country where about 85 per cent of the people are expatriates. Here, the language that is used in conversations across cultures is almost always English. This is because it is the most global language. The factors that made it so — flexibility, openness to borrowing words from other cultures, the commercial, cultural and scientific ascension of its home countries — all contributed to its becoming a sort of international utility.
Some of the essays in this series (click on “POSTS” at the top to read each entry) describe easy techniques for improving your baseline writing; others probe more deeply into topics such as purpose and audience. The former are like a guide to driving on city streets; the latter to letting it loose on the open road.
Yet for many non-native speakers, writing in this language can be a struggle. The spelling system is not obvious — how does one rationalize the spelling of «through» and «queue», for example? And the spellings of rhyme and rhythm have, alas, no rhyme or rhythm.
The order of words, the verb tenses and the structure of sentences vary from other languages, inevitably and in surprising ways.
Whereas English is one of many languages that put the verb before the object, others such as Arabic put the object before the verb. Mandarin Chinese does not conjugate verbs but adds a marker to indicate tense and aspect. While the English alphabet has 26 letters, the Hindi alphabet has 46, the Russian 33 and the Arabic 28. In English a woman’s uncle is «her uncle»; but in French a woman’s uncle is «son uncle» — in other words, «his uncle». Complications are bound to ensue.
At the same time, English is not a stroll in the park for native speakers either. They suffer the problems of familiarity. They are surrounded by English. It is wired into their brains, it guides their way each day, yet often they write it horribly. They are like the person who doesn’t read the user manual because he is certain he already knows how to use the tool. This is what a «working knowledge» is. Yet it is not the same as an understanding of the language’s systems and structures, and of simple methods to improve the calibre of writing in any form, from email to biography. These people know enough to get by when they write in English. For them, we want more.
Our aim in this simple yet aspirational series of brief essays is to serve both the native and non-native speaker, in 26 daily lessons from A to Z. Our advice is the result of our decades spent teaching, writing, and editing English.
Each essay concludes with a learn-and-use portion to help the lesson click home. Each essay concludes with a learn-and-use portion to spark your creativity. Hence the Make Fire logo – these are tools to spark creation, and perhaps in time we can add other subjects as well.
Again, you can click on “POSTS” at the top to read the series day by day.
-Erik Thornquist and Rob McKenzie