Archive for December, 2013

The Evils of Wordiness

Posted: December 23, 2013 in Language Talk
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George Orwell is best known for his politically-oriented novel 1984 and the equally polemical Animal Farm. Perhaps unbeknownst to most, he also wrote six simple rules for effective writing. These oft-quoted principles are the tenets of good communication, and should always be held dear:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

Granted, it not always wise to abide by these rules in the examination hall. A 5** student must flaunt such phrases as ‘put the cart before the horse’ and ‘beard the lion in his den’ in his or her writing. There is perhaps no geography teacher that will encourage the fifth rule, for ‘strata’ is always superior to ‘layers’, and ‘ecological equilibrium’ to ‘natural balance’. In fact, the fourth rule is not always true: the passive voice, in the right situations, enhance the writing. In the same essay where he introduced the rules, he wrote, ‘you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious’.

Exceptions notwithstanding, these general rules should be held close to our hearts every time we pick up our pens. Blithe disregard of these rules is a crime. This quote from an ICT textbook is a case in point:

On some occasions, using graphics is usually a more effective means of communication than using text only. Common examples of graphics include: photographs, drawings, line art, diagrams and, maps, etc.

Heavens! This excerpt is not only wordy and redundant, but also self-contradictory – the frequency indicators ‘on some occasions’ and ‘usually’ are semantically distinct. Here is my version:

Graphics often communicate more effectively than pure text. Examples of graphics include photographs, line art, diagrams and maps.

A cut of 1/3 of the words may seem inconsequential, but would you rather read a 200-page book or a 300-page one with the same content?

Maybe some will argue that non-fiction authors are not obligated to write like Orwell. That is not true; even scientific literature can be written well. Consider this quote from A Geography of Hong Kong:

Hong Kong, despite its limited area of 1,060 km2, shows marked spatial variations in relief and topography. To some extent this reflects the diversity in its assemblage of landforms and associated features. Within relatively short distances the change of relief is not only frequent but is also quite abrupt. Rugged hills on upland terrains contrast with the level grounds of the valley floors from which the terrains rise steeply. Remnants of the staircase-like erosion surfaces providing breaks of slope survive side by side with plunging slope profiles. Pocket interfluvial basins sandwiched between projecting shoulders of ranges overlook the open, less contracted, low-lying flood plains. Relief features of these contrasting categories thus emphasise the third dimension of the topography.

Crisp, concise, and crystal clear. If all our textbooks were written like this, I doubt Hong Kong’s TOEFL scores would still lag behind Japan and Korea.

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種樹的郭橐駝

Posted: December 23, 2013 in 書海浮沉
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[改篇自十一月素材寶庫]

  萬物皆有其道,只需順其道而行,萬物自然會興隆。可是,往往有人不放心,總愛事事精打細算,以為「有為」必勝於「無為」,於是「愛之太恩,憂之太勤」,弄巧成拙,徒勞無功。我們常說:「有心栽花花不開,無心插柳柳成蔭」,有心栽花的人對花兒關照太多,顧慮也太多,花兒硬是不開;無心插柳的人懂得放手,毫無牽掛,讓大自然自己創造奇蹟,柳樹苗受到日月的滋潤,便能長得蓬勃蓊鬱。

  柳宗元的《種樹郭橐駝傳》就闡明了這個歷久彌新的道理。郭橐駝是長安以西一個鄉下的村民,他憑著舉世無雙、冠絕儔輩的種樹技術聞名於世。只要是他種下的樹,即使是移植過去的,不但不會枯委,而且全都長得高大茂密、碩果纍纍(視駝所種樹,或移徙,無不活,且碩茂蚤實以蕃)。有人百思不得其解,遂向他請教種樹之道。原來,他沒有特殊的本領,可是他懂得順應著樹木的天性種植,根部要有舒展的空間,培土要分佈得均勻,舊土一同移植到新的地點,築土要堅固結實,幾點達到了,就不要再回頭看它了(凡植木之性,其本欲舒,其培欲平,其土欲故,其築欲密。既然已,勿動勿慮,去不複顧)。

  柳宗元這篇傳記,是借郭橐駝種樹的故事說明治國之道。事實上,修身、齊家一樣用得著這個道理。小時後,老師要我們背《三字經》,首兩句便是「人之初,性本善」;到了中學,我們學到「人之有是四端也,猶其有四體也」。先賢說,善心是與生俱來的。要成為有道德修養的人,只需順從良心,要是我們刻意把自己改造成「賢人」,「賢」就會變得虛假。從前有人趕路時被山賊搶去了所有財物,卻毫無傷心之情,悠然自得地離去。山賊覺得奇怪,便上前問個究竟。那人說,錢財的作用是保持生命,捨棄生命追求錢財,是不值得的。山賊聽罷,都稱他是個賢人,又怕賢人會向官府告發他們,就把他幹掉了。

  教子的道理也一樣。現今不少「怪獸家長」把希望寄託在子女身上,要求他們每天參加多項興趣班、補習班。最後,興趣班培養不了興趣,補習班也彌補不了學習的不足,孩子沒變成多才多藝的「文藝復興式人物」,反而因疲於奔命而吃不消。甚至有本地家長望子成龍心切,女兒剛生下來,就要她學會粵、普、英、日四語;可是女兒到了四歲,連一句完整的中文句子也說不出。其實,家長只需要為孩子提供優良學習環境和正面的價值觀,把泥土準備好,別的由子女自行發掘、摸索,子女自然就可以發揮他們的潛能,長成郭橐駝枝繁葉茂的參天大樹。

  前幾天說過偶遇書蟲的事情,興致未消,又作一篇。

  拙文以《我們都是書蟲》為題,說的斷然不是世人的閱讀習慣。人們總愛為醉心讀書的人冠上「書蟲」的名號,是美譽是污名,仁者見人智者見智。以本人愚見,人之似書蟲者,並非人的胃口,而是人的習性。

  顧名思義,書蟲必寄居於書。書之於書蟲,就像水之於魚,魚失去水便會死去,書蟲無書亦然。當天我外衣上的書蟲緩緩蠕動,就像被漁夫抓上岸的魚,失去了生命的依靠,只能黯然啜泣,有苦難言,不久就一命嗚呼了。即使是強者,甩掉以後,同樣難逃勾魂使者的拘提。餘下留守書城的,也避不過老師無情的掃帚。

  在此之前,書蟲王國正處於欣欣向榮的太平盛世,男女老少夙夜吃書,終日倘佯於群書之間,書架的木板是蟲國的疆域,書脊都成了通衢大道,那本《香港作家散文導賞》,則是蟲影熙來攘往、接踵摩肩的都邑!堂堂大國,一夜之間,何至沒落至此?竊以為,蟲國的繁華只是海市辰樓般的假象,蟲國始盛之旦,背後已經暗暗響起北鄙之音。圖書館的書,就只有這麼多,書蟲在此定居繁衍,蟲口勢必與日俱增,書總會有吃完的一天。書吃完了,只剩一片蕭條,萬千書蟲在窮途末路的盡頭,只能發出最後的吼聲!

  昔有復活島文明,聳立於智利以西的一個小島,一尊尊巨型人面像,載着多少萬井笙歌的歷史和一樽江月的回億!只怪他們不愛惜自然,天然資源近乎耗盡之際,竟不思逃脫,反而埋首雕刻。雕欄玉砌畢竟不能當飯吃,滿天神衹也聽不到他們的哭訴,才至今天禾黍故宮的慘況。今天的國家民族、乃至世界文明經濟蒸蒸日上,科技日新月異,可是我們賴以為生的木材、礦物和化石燃料將近枯竭,環境生態天天受到冷酷的摧殘。在有限的地球系統裏,把經濟系統無限擴張,似乎成了人類的使命。這種形勢,還能維持多久?

  回望蟲國的殘山剩水,只見幾道黑色的疤痕,和幾本倖存的圖書。那荒蕪的景象,難道就是人類的未來?

新舊圖書館

Posted: December 14, 2013 in 生活點滴
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  前幾天,我啟動了新網誌《書海浮沉錄》,取英文名Annals of a Teenage Bookworm(少年書蟲的年志),並寫成楔子,殊不知墨瀋未乾,就偶然遇到書蟲逾百條!當天我八時回校,太陽剛出,人跡寥若晨星,便到學校圖書館閒覽一下。群卷佈置井然,書香綿綿,我如走馬觀花般,掃視著架上的書名。其中一本名曰《香港作家散文導賞》,看下去毫無異樣,便從書架拿下,欲仔細端詳端詳。書本一開,只見紙碎一堆、書蟲逾百,始知該架早成了書蟲的安樂窩。書蟲撲上我的校服外衣,緩緩蠕動著,白裏帶點兒黃,嚇得我心驚膽跳,魂飛魄散。我本想喊破喉嚨,像小孩子一樣尖叫,卻囿於青春期的聲帶,徒然「啊」了兩聲,沒人聽見沒人看見。毅然踱步到圖書館前方,叫了一聲「阿sir」,圖書館老師叫我脫下外衣,替我甩掉外衣上的蟲子,我才稍鬆一口氣。

  跟圖書館老師的交談中得知,數年前圖書館裝修,以前的家具都換走了,政府訂來一批劣質書架,是木碎壓製而成的,沒塗過防腐劑,不愁書蟲不來。聽聞以前的圖書館舊得可以當舊電影的佈景,只恨我生得晚,考進去的一年剛巧就是圖書館裝修的那年,無緣一睹這個老得可愛的書房。現在,這個風燭殘年的老人已仙逝,換來一個外表魁秀壯美骨子卻弱不禁風的少年。審計處最近揭發,落成近兩載的新政府總部仍藏有近三千處的缺漏,難道新的、外型「摩登」的事物都是千蒼百孔、僅供觀賞的玩物?

楔子

Posted: December 11, 2013 in 中文
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  都說學習語文要多讀多寫。小生今年十六歲,自幼至今,經歷了多讀少寫的幼兒園時代,多讀多寫的小學時代,少讀少寫的初中時代。少讀少寫的禍害,初中時還沒露出來:中三幸獲全級第三,幾有昔時儒生中舉之快!然而,中四期中考試,竟名落孫山。接過成績單,各科目大致守住一向水平,唯有中文科成績一落千丈,居百位之外,慘不忍睹。這次波折於我如暮鼓,如晨鐘,痛定思痛之餘,也下定決心亡羊補牢。同年期末考試,中文科果然稍有升勢,可恨還是遠遠不及初中的成績。

  歸根究底,我語文水平低劣,讀得不夠、寫得不夠當是罪魁禍首。自開學以來,為了提升語文水平,我把餘暇都投資在中文閱讀、抄寫,以圖「化量變為質變」,把中文成績推到五級水平。焚膏繼晷、夙夜苦讀的生活可不是度假的!時至今日,中五期中考將至,幾個月來的努力略見成效。可是,每收到作文題目,腦子依舊是一片空白,不知所措,英人謂之「Writer’s block」(作家的障礙物),倒也生動形象:在家裡作文,得花上半天的時間,才清掉障礙物,寫出稍有水平的文章;在學校作文有時限,當然寫不出水平,只能胡謅亂扯,徒然把一堆文字堆砌成顛三倒四、不倫不類的怪物。毫無疑問,這些問題都是寫作不夠所致。

  面對如此重大嚴峻的考驗,我決心破釜沉舟,寫作和閱讀雙管齊下,同下苦功。做模擬試卷自是辦法,可是模擬試卷的題目都不吸引我,沒有寫作動力,自然寫不出好文章。要養成寫作思維,我想,天天寫日記、隨筆乃是不二法門;成熟的手腕練成了,再做模擬試題,未為遲也。是為《書海浮沉錄》網誌構思之始末。