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Two Kinds of Writing

June 27, 2021

When we think about good writing, we often think of “correct” writing. The good writer spells and punctuates correctly, and certainly doesn’t make grammar errors!

But when we look at actual examples of writing, we might modify this view just a bit.

Below are two real letters written long ago. The first was written by a native speaker of English, Harold Scott, and the other was written by a Polish immigrant to the United States, F. N.

Mr. Scott’s memo is difficult to read even though it contains no errors in correctness. The memo is imageless, bureaucratic, and wordy. He seems to be saying, in simple terms, “Let me know what you do before you do it.”

The second letter is full of errors. Obviously, the writer is a non-native speaker. But strikingly, the letter communicates meaning clearly. We know exactly what F. N. needs and is asking for.

Both letters are written in English. The big question is, Which is the “better” letter? The answer to that question depends, of course, on what we mean by “better.” The second letter is interesting, readable, loaded with imagery, and as clear as it can be. The first letter is awful!

If we’re honest with ourselves, we come to the extraordinary conclusion that the second letter is better than the first letter even though the first letter is the error-free example and the second letter is riddled with errors.


May 4, 1972

To: See Attached Distribution List

From:  Harold D. Scott

Subject:  Intra-Agency Communication

In order to avoid negative reflections as a result of dysfunctional internal communications, and in order to enhance the possibilities of coordinated balances I am strongly urging that any item having a direct or indirect affect on the NW#1 Project Area be made known to me before, rather than after its occurrence, when possible.

                Your cooperation in achieving a better communication channel relative to NW#1 would be greatly appreciated.


Letter from an anonymous Polish immigrant sent to the Massachusetts Commission on Immigration, August, 1914.

I’m in this country four months (from 14 Mai 1913-Noniton-Aniverpen).

                I am a polish man.  I want be american citizen—and took here first paper in 12 June N 625.  But my friends are polish people—I must live with them—I work in the shoes—shop with polish people—I stay all the time with them—at home—in the shop—anywhere.

                I want live with american people, but I do not know anybody of american.  I go 4 times to teacher and must pay $2 weekly.  I wanted take board in english house, but I could not, for I earn only $5 or 6 in a week, and when I pay teacher $2, I have only $4-$3—and now english board house is too dear for me.  Better job to get is very hard for me because I do not speak well english and I cannot understand what they say to me.  The teacher teach me—but when I come home—I must speak polish and in the shop also.  In this way I can live in your country many years—like my friends—and never speak—write well english—and never be good american citizen.  I know here many persons, they live here 10 or moore years, and they are not citizens, they don’t speak well english, they don’t know geography and history of this country, they don’t know constitution of America.—nothing.  I don’t like be like them I wanted they help me in English—they could not—because they knew nothing.  I want go from them away.  But where?  Not in the country, because I want go in the city, free evening schools and lern.  I’m looking for help.  If somebody could give me another job between american people, help me live with them and lern english—and could tell me the best way how I can fast lern—it would be very, very good for me.  Perhaps you have somebody, here he could help me?

                If you can help me, I please you.

                I wrote this letter by myself and I know no good—but I hope you will understand whate I mean.  Excuse me.                F.N.