Grammar, orthography, word choice, and other esoteric things

Well, just take the words ‘orthography’ and ‘esoteric’. Be honest, who had to look them up?

Do writers have a responsibility to preserve the language? We certainly have the power to change it for good or ill.

Especially in these days of phone calls, text messages, IMs, and emails the interpersonal missive is ephemeral. It will be no record for future generations to judge and learn the language of today. What legacy, then, do we who produce the words that are being preserved in some manner wish to leave behind us?

Arguably our responsibility is to drag language into the present; kicking and screaming if need be. But do we discard all that came before? Maybe we should pick and choose? Or ought our goal be to preserve it all with, perhaps, some additions tacked on here and there? Some kind of blending of these choices?

Do we embrace the abandonment of whom? Do we allow the semicolon to be forgotten? Do we blur meaning by not joking when we say that ‘a synonym is the word you use when you can’t spell the one you mean’?

Shakespeare and Chaucer had amazing impact on language still felt today, despite centuries between them both and either of them and us. We coin terms, us authors and writers. ‘Scifi’, ‘grok’, ‘robot’, and more come from fiction but creep into usage. Sometimes common, sometimes not so much. Just as ‘arouse’ and others only go back to The Bard and his Globe theatre.

It is my feeling that we should strive hardily to advance language. To improve and expand it. To invent the terms that have not yet been labelled. In days past we might advance punctuation with such clever little inventions as the interrobang, but the advent of the computer reduces that potential.

At times you find books, big press, little press, and self-published alike which are poorly or sloppily edited, or worse edited carefully by those whose grasp of English is all too clearly incomplete. I’ll be the first to admit that a lack of this is a big reaon I have a dear and wonderful editor who is a brutal and obsessive compulsively persnickety grammarian and am sincerely grateful that Apple products have exceptional spell checkers for orthographic errors. Still, I strive to reduce the poor dear’s workload (and thus preserve her sanity, and potentially my life) by learning from my mistakes.

The trouble isn’t entirely editorial, though. Some things can be quite correct in terms of spelling and grammar, but they still use sloppy language. ‘Blue’ may be a word readily recognisable by virtually any English speaking reader you may care to name, but if what you mean is ‘cerulean’ then use it. Why be inaccurate to avoid confusing someone who can bloody well go buy a box of Crayola? Who never, at least borrowing from a friend, encountered a wisteria crayon? Who has never seen a rose, or white mable? The poor defenseless adjective is the most abused in this respect, but it appears in other places. There may be virtually (or even entirely, depending your frame of mind) no difference in saying ‘with alacrity’ or ‘quickly’ but maybe there is good reason to use alacrity. Don’t avoid the words – after extensive and exhaustive research I’ve concluded that, barring telegraphs, words are all cheap, even the big ones. And screw all that, maybe you actually meant ‘expeditiously’?

Is it necessary to write only the simple sentence? Have people truly stooped below the humble goldfish for attention span and short term memory such that we cannot comprehend a compound, complex, or compund-complex sentence? The comma, semicolon, and colon are our friends – friends who feel lonely and neglected. Or what of our poor buddies the hyphen and dash?

We should ‘ponder’ as well as ‘think’. We should not be afraid of our greatest and most important tools of our craft. The punctuation, sentence construction, and all else that comprise language are the vessels by which the beautiful landscapes of our imaginations may be transmitted to others. We should cherish and nurture, build upon, and care for them. Yet there are among some creative writing texts and classes the expressed notion that one should use the simplest and most base language you can, because god forfend you accidentally commit the mortal sin of cliché; even if the girl is raven haired, or even if the exact colour of his eyes is sapphire (I have a very visual mind … I love colours; if you’re hoping for different examples don’t hold your breath) they teach you to say black and to say blue. I’ve little exposure to journalism classes, but to judge by the horrendous state of the writing quality of much modern journalism (including that which is read by the TV anchors) I suspect little difference in that realm.

Of course, too, there’s the cult of political correctness. Musn’t call a thing what it is because of connotations. I’m sorry, but lame and crippled mean quite specific things. Differently abled, on the other hand, could just mean she can tie a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. Retarded has a specific meaning, okay a few, in slang it means to say someone is not operating to an acceptable mental par, but ought to be capable of it, in not-slang it means that someone or something’s development is stunted. So something may retard flammability, or a person’s mental development might be retarded. Mentally challenged, by comparison, could just mean Steve Wozniak‘s particular bit of brain damage which meant he had to relearn long term memory storage. We’re afraid to be accurate because someone may become offended. “A rose by any other name …” you cannot change a thing by renaming it. Doing so simply makes a new slang. One with a handicap is no more able to dance a Viennese Waltz by calling him physically challenged. All you’ve done is create ambiguity. It’s back around to blue or cerulean. Is it jet black, or midnight? Is it hot as Hell or sweltering? Idiom, expression, they’re beautiful things.

Now some political correctness is understandable. For example, if it’s a word that has no positive or purely descriptive meaning. While one may use, if done in the name of character accuracy, ‘nigger’ (I refuse to type ‘n-word’, you’ll think the damned thing either way so avoiding its use is stupid), one should certainly not use it in casual narration. That shouldn’t be a hard and fast rule, though … perhaps the narrator has use of the word as I just did, but if you don’t need the word you ought to select another. Why? It’s a word that has only recently gained any positive meaning. Its strict dictionary definition is that of an insult. Even its borderline positive use is in very specific context or it becomes, at best, neutral or just as rude as ever. That word has not shifted meaning sufficiently for casual use, and it should be the business of those who it was devised to put down to determine its fate. Till that is done let’s set it by the side. There’re other similar things, but I should hope you get the point already. The important thing to remember is, at least in English, context accounts for much. The word is not what is negative or hurtful, a word is only sounds. Laxopickleder is nonsense, or it could mean a kind of fish, or it could be a horrible comment about a gentleman’s lack of sexual discretion … it depends on usage, on context, and on the accepted purpose. For now it is foolishness but, once, so was muggle.

I guess, ultimately, I’m just saying that, as writers, we just might have a responsibility to avoid the trends and fads that come and go in language (excepting dialogue, of course!) and we ought to strive to prevent the devolution of the language. That, regardless of journalist or novelist, poet or biographer, we should care for our tools as would a carpenter or mason. That doesn’t just mean keeping our typewriters in tune, our pens full of ink, or our computer harddrives virus free. We should take equal care of and equal (possibly greater?) pride in our language so that our meaning is clear, at least, to this generation. There is no helping if future generations understand us or not. Language evolves, words and grammars come and go. Latin is dead, old Norsk and new are hardly the same thing, Chaucer in the original would be more likely understood by a German than an Englishman these days.

Even if we write for young children, while our language ought, by necessity, to be simpler; we should not aim for the lowest denominator. Dr Seuss assumed a measure of intelligence and thought in his readers. Perhaps if we expect our readers, as did he, to have intellects and the ability to think then not only will our works have room to be more vivid, but maybe we’ll impact those who read us. Maybe they’ll have greater vocabularies, keep their infinitives unsplit, and ensure their subjects are in agreement with their verbs.


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