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No Adverbs, Please, Mr. Xi


Berkshire Manual of Style for International Publishing:Tonight, the president of the People’s Republic of China, XI Jinping, will give the only policy speech of his first state visit to the United States. Below you’ll find a link for the live feed from the dinner taking place in Seattle. This has reminded me of the time I heard Mr. Xi speak in Washington DC. It was 14 February 2012, shortly before he stepped, on schedule, into the shoes of outgoing president HU Jintao. That was not an easy time in US-China relations. Standing on line, I heard one person after another talking about the lack of trust.

But in the ballroom, as we ate our steaks, the speeches were all about trust and shared interests. At that point Xi needed the Chinese people to see him as a new leader they could rely on, but he also wanted to reach his first US audience.

Chinese speech writers are not known for rhetorical flourishes in English, and they do not have a knack for humorous anecdotes or memorable stories. But Xi, on that sunny February day, unembarrassed by the corny Valentine’s Day references in the press,  told a personal story, about corresponding with an American family who’d once hosted him in Iowa and inviting them to visit China.

Not only did this make his speech memorable, but it showed that he had someone on staff who was aware of the expectations of a Western audience. We Americans put up with platitudes and tolerate politicians who lack any discernable interest in verifiable information, but we do expect them to make us smile. We like to see some personality and a little warmth. Of course Xi’s real audience is back home, where expectations are different, but a speech on American soil is a rare opportunity and I feel confident that he’ll make good use of it tonight.

There will be platitudes from both US and Chinese speakers, but I have one quiet hope: that we can get through the next week without hearing the lumpish English translation of Chinese slogans. I don’t want to hear about Xi’s “Four Comprehensives,” which are even worse in English than JIANG Zemin’s “Three Represents.” [In the first version of this post, I attributed the Represents to HU Jintao. Apologies, Mr. Hu.] An article in China Daily this morning described them: “The strategy includes comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepening reform, comprehensively governing the nation according to law and comprehensively strictly governing the Party.”

These slogans are, to a literate English speaker, like fingernails across a chalkboard. The expression above, with its double adverbs, is the worst yet. Adverbs are unnecessary. Adverbs ruin prose, and destroy speeches. Stephen King put it best, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I regret that in the Berkshire Manual of Style for International Publishing I did not emphasize this point for non-native writers of English. (Translators take note.) It’s simple: cut the adverbs. Don’t use them. When you’re editing, press delete. Never look back.

Indeed, I’ve already decided that the next edition of our Manual of Style needs a section for Chinese writers on how to translate political slogans into something that will be understandable and palatable to people outside China. For the time being, I hope Mr. Xi will tell stories that will help Americans see the deep concerns he has about things that we all can understand: bringing people out of poverty, stabilizing the economy, improving education and encouraging enterprise, and bringing an end to what everyone acknowledges was rampant corruption.

China is unique in being both one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy countries and also being a developing nation, with only a few decades in the modern world economy. Human stories and simple clear language will enable Mr. Xi to convey something of this complexity, and the challenges he faces as China’s leader.
Here’s the notice about tonight’s event, which we can all join online.
Tonight, Tuesday, 22 September 2015, 8.30pm EDT / 5.30pm PDT – Watch President Xi Jinping Address the American People

The National Committee on U.S.-China Relations is honored to co-host a very special dinner for President Xi Jinping and Madame Peng Liyuan tonight (Tuesday, September 22), along with the US-China Business Council and the Washington State Welcoming Committee – Seattle 2015. President Xi is making the only public policy speech of his U.S. visit at this event. Beginning at 8:30 pm EDT / 5:30 pm PDT, watch the live video feed >>. Audio available in both English and Chinese.

2 thoughts on “No Adverbs, Please, Mr. Xi

  1. It’s a long time since I contributed an article on the parish to you for an encyclopaedia you were editing. However, I have practised adverb restraint for a long time! I’m very aware how extremely annoying the constantly emphasised sense is in a sentence.


  2. Thanks, and I do remember your fine article in the Encyclopedia of Community!

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