Vol 0, No 11
7 December 1998
C E N T R A L E U R O P E :
The Way of Written Argument
Why do Czech and English authors seem to differ
in their approach to analysis and writing?
Czech speakers and English speakers write differently. Czech authors and Anglo-American authors do not develop arguments in the same way, and their overall approaches to analysis differ significantly. Much of this probably has to do with the differing education systems in the Czech Republic as opposed to Britain and North America.
After studying Czech for a number of years, writing for Czech newspapers for two years and working as editor of The Central Europe for half a year, I think I can finally explain where this difference lies. Obviously, my limited experiences do not make me an expert on literature, but the differences in the commentaries and analyses that come across my desk in a day is notable: the Czech texts and English texts are not just in different languages, they are in different worlds.
The key differences between Czech and English texts are, indeed, many, but they are most notable in three areas of writing and argumentation: structure, transition and development.
English texts (both American and British) are much more structured than Czech ones. More often than not, an English analysis article has a clearly defined introduction, body and conclusion. The rules for what belongs and what does not belong to each of these three sections are rather clear. In English writing and public speaking one knows what one has to do. First, one outlines what one is going to discuss (introduction). Second, one discusses it (body). Third, one reviews what one has just discussed (conclusion). Despite infinite variations on this pattern, the underlying form is always clear in a strong piece of writing.
It is telling that one often hears Czechs say, after reading an English text, that the author is repeating himself. To the Anglo-American reader, however, this three-part system is simply good form. It is the sign of a well-structured analysis.
By contrast, a Czech piece of writing to the Anglo-American eye can look wholly without structure, even chaotic. It is often difficult to tell where the author is going even after reading the first paragraph or two. The body paragraphs are not differentiated from the introduction in content. Rarely does a conclusion come along to tie the arguments together. There can seem to be very little "to grab hold of" in the text, and as an editor, one often feels that the text could be cut to begin or end anywhere.
The second notable difference between English and Czech texts can be found in their use of transitions between paragraphs and between ideas. Writers in English courses learn that such transitions are critical to a smoothly flowing, readable analysis. A paragraph should naturally flow from the one before it and not just seem to appear out of nowhere. Writing instructors speak of "transition sentences" either at the end of the first paragraph or at the beginning of the second. A transition sentence is meant to connect the two paragraphs, which themselves are meant to contain two separate ideas.
With few transition sentences, Czech texts seem more choppy: they contain abrupt jumps from one paragraph to another and one idea to another. Often, impenetrably long Czech paragraphs contain several ideas which in an English text would be split into shorter units, each with a single concept, yet connected by transition sentences. Again, to the English reader, such an analysis would appear disorganized and such an argument, poorly developed.
With more structure and greater attention to the smooth flow of an argument, English analyses appear more developed. A good author in the English language sticks to the point with few diversions, no meandering and no tangents. One is not trying to be excessively literary, one is making an argument.
Czech analyses, by contrast, seem to wander from everywhere to everywhere, with more allowance for literary - perhaps creative - deviation. There may not even be a main argument, no thread of reasoning that runs through the whole paper. It may be just a "this and that" sort of piece that has no particular aim, as if the author were afraid to reveal his or her opinion. Even individual sentences can start off in one direction and end in a completely different location.
Worst of all - again from an Anglo-American point of view - is the "but maybe not" Czech authors often put at the very end of their articles. The "but maybe not" is something completely in opposition to what the author has been talking about in the rest of the paper. If the author has written ten paragraphs about the sky being blue, then the last paragraph will say something to the effect of, "Well, maybe it's dark and foreboding after all."
Such a last minute attempt to cushion one's argument just to demonstrate that one is seeing things from the other point of view is a taboo in English writing: it only serves to weaken an argument. I can still remember all my writing instructors declaring with great wisdom: "A conclusion is for concluding. Never introduce something new in a conclusion." There is much truth in that: why argue against yourself in the final sentences?
These brief observations do not imply that all English speakers write better than all Czech speakers. There are Czech texts that have a clear structure and consistent path of argument. Likewise, there are many English texts that are simply awful - unstructured, no transitions, no clear point. These observations are not presented as an absolute rule - more like a set of averages. It is also quite possible that these "Czech traits" are actually more generally Central European. Indeed, there are many German texts where the "but maybe not" is also the case.
But whether simply Czech or more broadly Central European, the main reason for these differences certainly lies in the varying education systems. Americans and Britons, especially those enrolled in university prep programs, begin writing from an early age, and they write relatively often compared to their Czech counterparts. Having two 500 to 1000 word papers to write per week is not unusual in preparatory schools. Through long hours of practice, the students are trained to write using a structure, and they learn how to develop an argument. Certainly, Czech Gymnazium students do not write so often as a rule.
Perhaps the Czech educator would say that English speakers write too much and are overly dedicated to form: introduction, body and conclusion may seem too formulaic to them. But practice does improve writing, and good writers do not fanatically hold to such a structured approach, any way. They break from the system here and there, but their years of training remain in the subconscious and are manifest in their clear and concise writing.
Over the past few months, as editor of The Central Europe Review, I have seen quite a number of articles, essays and analyses pass my desk. Comparing the Czech and English texts, one cannot help but notice that on average the Czech texts are less structured and less well organized. They lack transition elements that maintain a clear thread of reasoning throughout, and they often fail to develop a clearly defined argument from start to finish. It seems that Czech students do not write nearly as much and as often as students in the UK and North America, and this is probably the reason for the shortcomings.
I have often discussed this with my colleagues here and abroad, and many have made similar observations. Still, I would be interested to hear from educators, writers, editors and others who are in positions to compare Czech and English texts.
Andrew Stroehlein, 7 December 1998
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