Say it with a simpler word if you can

KEEP IT SIMPLE: Poet Christine Chia says that writing complicated sentences to appear more sophisticated can backfire.


    Jul 30, 2013

    Say it with a simpler word if you can

    POET Christine Chia launched her first book of poetry, The Law Of Second Marriages, at the Singapore Writers' Festival in 2011 to much critical acclaim.

    The 34-year-old English Literature teacher will be launching her second book of poetry, tentatively titled Skip The Happy Families, Please, this year.

    In the fourth part of this series on good role models for English, My Paper speaks to the author and teacher about using the dictionary on the go, writing concisely and why one should be reading instead of playing Candy Crush while commuting.

    Where do you find inspiration to write poetry?

    My first book was based partly on my own family, with some fictional elements. I also widened the scope to comment indirectly on family life and society. After all, the family is, very often, the most powerful social unit.

    I was also inspired and encouraged to write by Cyril Wong, a famous local author. He is a supportive, informal mentor who gives detailed feedback on my work.

    One of the tips for the Speak Good English Movement this year is "Use English-language resources to get it right". Which resource has been indispensable to you in your writing?

    The dictionary, no doubt.

    I use a mobile app from on my phone. It is free and good enough.

    Half the people in Singapore probably have smartphones, so there's no excuse not to check the dictionary. It only takes a minute now, compared to the past, when I had to plough through the thick, unabridged Longman version.

    If you use the dictionary often enough, it becomes a habit.

    Sometimes, you might also discover that certain words have several meanings. This is useful for poetry, since it tends to be very dense and plays on double, and even triple, meanings.

    Some of my students try to write excessively complicated sentences, and they use words that are wrong because they don't understand what the words really mean. It's an attempt to appear more sophisticated, which often backfires.

    When I need to use a difficult word, I will use it, but if I can express (what I want to say) using a simpler word, I'd rather do that.

    What is your pet peeve when it comes to the use of English?

    I don't like SMS spelling, it's very annoying.

    Take the word "haz": It's not efficient because it has the same number of letters as the word "has", which it is supposed to replace.

    Excessive abbreviations can be circumvented by putting a little more thought into being more concise.

    Instead of trying to write many words with as few letters as possible, why not try using fewer words?

    Tell us about a funny language slip-up that you've encountered in the classroom.

    I think students are so stressed by exams that, sometimes, they can't spell the word "public", which comes out as "pubic" instead!

    Another tip from the movement is "Always check, then double-check". Have you ever regretted not checking?

    At work, I was given a standard e-mail message with a lengthy text that was recycled from the year before. I assumed that it was accurate and forwarded it to several external parties.

    I realised later that the content about the year had not been updated. It was embarrassing and I wish I'd checked.

    This illustrates how being concise is immensely important, because an e-mail message that is too long can discourage people from reading it.

    Writing and teaching must take up the bulk of your time. Where do you find the time to read?

    I have a to-do list in my phone that reminds me to set aside 30 to 60 minutes each day for reading.

    I don't have a television set at home, because I don't want my social life to be dictated by a TV schedule. I really don't have much time, since work takes up about 10 hours of my day, and I need to fit in time to write, exercise, catch up with friends and sleep.

    I get a lot of pleasure from reading. There is no substitute for trying to read a piece of difficult work; it's the intellectual equivalent of training for and running a marathon.

    Your body becomes very different after training and running, and, likewise, reading a complex work will change you.

    In Singapore, people play Candy Crush on their phones during their commute. The time spent on your daily commute can be put to better use by doing something productive, like reading.

    As listening to good spoken English can help you (improve your English), those who drive can listen to audio books.

    The Say It Right series is brought to you by the Speak Good English Movement. For more information, visit