How to write better?

We learn to write “go down” instead of “descend”, “get” instead of “come”, “go” instead of “go”: the guide of Claudio Giunta

Claudio Giunta, historian and literature teacher and versatile author of essays on different subjects, has published a book entitled How not to write (Utet) that collects and puts in order the courses of “non-writing” held at the University of Trento, “in the a belief that, as I say to students, you can’t really teach writing but you can at least say what is best not to do when writing ”. This is one of the initial chapters, dedicated to one of the most widespread inclinations of bad writing and the ancient responsibilities of the school in its perpetuation.

There is this strange contradiction. At school, and then in the houses, in life, later on, the people read Primo Levi and Italo Calvino, two very clear writers in language, Cartesians, two writers who have indeed explicitly defended the clarity of writing in pages dedicated to the theme. Calvino has done this several times, but above all in a famous article published in the newspaper “Il Giorno” entitled “L”antilingua” (1965). The article began with a skit, the deposition of a man in front of the Carabinieri and the putting in place of this deposition by the brigadier, who replaced every word and every turn of current usage with words and turns of phrase to his ears more elegant, more chosen, but in reality terribly clumsy:

The sergeant is in front of the typewriter. The interrogator, seated in front of him, answers the questions a bit stuttering, but careful to say everything he has to say in the most precise way and without a word too many: “This morning I was going to the cellar to turn on the stove and I found all those flasks of wine behind the coal box. I got one for bermelo at dinner. I didn’t know anything that the above-mentioned bottle shop had been broken into. “

Impassive, the brigadier quickly beats his faithful transcript on the keys: “The undersigned, having gone in the first hours in the morning to the premises of the basement to start the thermal plant, declares to be accidentally incurred in the discovery of a quantity of products vinicoli, located in a position behind the container used to contain the fuel, and to have carried out the removal of one of the said articles in order to consume it during the afternoon meal, not being aware of the effraction carried out above.

The anti-language described by Calvino is the enemy language of clarity and concreteness, saturated with bureaucratic formulas, the language that prefers the verb ‘to go’ to the verb ‘to go’, the perifrasi ‘wine products’ to the noun’ fiaschi ‘, why’ go ‘and’ fiaschi ‘are felt to be too close to speech, inappropriate in a written text: and those who do not have good language control often mistake simplicity for sloppiness, lack of elegance, while simple writing is always recommendable, especially when official documents are compiled as a complaint, or when a law is written (just browse through the Official Journal to see that our legislators do not follow Calvino’s advice at all).

Observed from this point of view, the problem of anti-language is much more serious than the joking tone of this article would let imagine why, as Calvino observes later, this artificial, fake language is the symptom of a wrong relationship not only with language but with life and with oneself. Whoever speaks or writes like this wants to give himself an air of importance, he wants to be more than he really is, he wants to put himself on a different and higher level than his interlocutors. They, poor things, say ‘go’, ‘find’, ‘dinner’, while we, the authority, say ‘go’, ‘incur in the discovery’, ‘afternoon meal’.

The problem, in short, is not only linguistic but it is ethical, it is civil: used in this way, language does not serve, as it should, to communicate, to make itself understood, but on the contrary it serves to keep at a distance, to put a barrier between self and others. The main feature of the anti-language, Calvino wrote,

it is what I would call the “semantic terror”, that is, the flight before every word that has a meaning in itself, as if “fiasco” “stove” “coal” were obscene words, as if “go” “find” “To know” indicated foul actions. In anti-language the meanings are constantly removed, relegated to the bottom of a perspective of words that in themselves do not want to say anything or want to say something vague and elusive.

Are they things that sound familiar? Did you also read that “An accident occurred” instead of “There was an accident”? Have you written ‘I go to the director’ instead of ‘I’m going to the director’? It is because you are also inhabitants of the anti-language, like everyone.

These are considerations of common sense, but – it is worth observing – in Levi’s article there is not only common sense. There is also, at a certain point, a very limiting judgment on Pound’s poetry (“Personally, I am also tired of the praise bestowed on Ezra Pound in life and death”) and a respectful distancing from the “disjointed babble” of the last poems by Celan. To say, in passing, that even the aura of veneration that has been created around certain incomprehensible poems of the twentieth century could reflect more the snobbishness of professors – whose worst nightmare is to appear lingered or naive admitting that they do not understand, and that to the incomprehensibility therefore often pay a hypocritical tribute – that the literary quality of those texts.