By Peter Giblett
Writing to Impress?
When a writer writes a story, they rarely think about how readers perceive them personally. Sure, they consider how you perceive their story or characters portrayed within it. Whether fiction or fact, it is the story that matters, and the writer has a significant impact on how their story is told.
In talking about seven seconds to make an impression I was looking at the impact of the story on a blog. It is true of any type of story. How the reader needs to be impressed with what the blogger has to say.
A long-time fascination of mine is words that are available for us writers to use and how we construct sentences and paragraphs. Yet there is a modern need to dumb down and simplify everything we do. My curiosity is part of the reason for this investigation. It drives me to enhance and expand writing, to bourgeon, like the weeds taking over an unkempt garden.
New Words to Consider
If you regularly read posts on Two Drops of Ink, then you will consider the literary aspects of writing. There are more than a million words in the English language for a good reason. They are begging or caterwauling for use. Not just one of the latest words added to the language, but words that are as old as the hills. Here is a new word:
Infomania (n): The compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information, typically via mobile phone or computer.
Hmm, there’s a universal compulsion associated with the modern world. Many of us have been there.
Old Words Still Work
Reading University says, “the words ‘I’ and ‘who’ are among the oldest, along with the words ‘two,’ ‘three,’ and ‘five.'” Also ‘dirty’ is an old word and has many different versions in the Indo-European language set. According to the BBC, those researchers “can predict which words are likely to become extinct – citing ‘squeeze,’ ‘guts,’ ‘stick’ and ‘bad’ as probable first casualties.”
Wow, who would think about words becoming extinct? Let’s squeeze new words out, get to the guts of the matter and stick to our subject, make even the bad words work their magic. There you are, nowhere near extinct.
Some of the oldest words in English date back more than 15,000 years. Conventional wisdom says the Britain of 15,000 years ago was in the Stone Age. But of course, the language migrated to that island culture and from there exploded across the world to predominate today. It has changed over time. English is a Germanic language, related to Dutch, Norwegian and other languages. We English speakers have been inventive as well, borrowing and adapting from a host of other languages.
Borrowing Words Enriches our Writing
Most of the European languages are related to the Indian subcontinent, which means there must have been a migration of people, words, trade, and produce across the whole of that continental landmass. It is easy to speculate about that movement, but the truth is we are unlikely to ever know the origin of everything.
Of course, there is a difference between how we speak and how we write. Sitting at the keyboard, I can find the word I really need to use, when speaking it is in on the tip of your tongue but may never come out.
Machines Make Mistakes in Word Choice
What I find annoying is the pressure to dumb down everything we do. This example is based on Microsoft Word and comes from another document. The aim – take a well known 10 letter word and persuade the writer to use a substitute, three- or four-letter word.
Look at the following:
I didn’t give the full context, but in this example, neither ‘aid,’ nor ‘help’ were right for the message. ‘Assistance’ was. What is the point of having words if you don’t use them?
Each word has a slightly different use, and it is the job of the writer to select the appropriate word for the job. I used ‘appropriate’ instead of ‘correct’ or ‘right’ with good reason. Correct assumes something is right or wrong. Appropriate shows there are many choices possible.
I do not appreciate a machine telling me I am wrong when I am not. My fear is about the editor, to whom I send my work. Do they like to dumb down my words or publish the piece only after substituting my word choice with simpler alternatives?
Yes, we have many words with good reason. Our language has become more complex over time, but it wasn’t designed that way.
Who Can Read and Understand My Word Choice?
If you have examined readability, then you will know about both the “Gunning Fog index” or the “Flesch–Kincaid grade” scores. There is a basic proposition that upon reaching the reading age of 12, we have an adult understanding of the language. It is true we use different words for different audiences. Write a novel with a reading age of 12, and it may be right.
Write a business report, then use of specific language is necessary. A twelve-year-old rarely has the knowledge to run a business, although some do. Talk about the language used for medicine, law, computer systems, accounting, and you’ll see that each has their own words.
The sixteen-year-old knows so much more than the twelve-year-old, some leave school at that time. Complete high-school and the knowledge level expands again. College or university changes it all again. We come away from education with specialist skills and specialist words. Yet the computer scientist must talk to the businessman, accountant, manager, etc. to ensure their systems function effectively.
They don’t talk about bytes, recursion, or UML when telling the businessman how their system works. As the lawyer must translate legal language into common terms for their clients to understand. We each have access to general language and specific language.
Writing Words Versus Talking Words
All we need to do is look at the technologies we use today and how central they are to our lives, compared to any bygone era. Only a few years ago someone would have taken away the young woman talking to herself on the high-street to spend some time in a mental asylum. Today we know she is speaking to her girl-friend on her hands-free device, having an animated conversation possibly. Not mad, although arguably maddening. Do you see it? Even within our own lifetime, our language needs have changed. They should have expanded our vocabulary, rather than shortened it.
I wonder why we sell ourselves short with language?
Concise, Timely, and Correct Words
Again, words deliberately picked. There are plenty of words, why do we fixate on using only the simple or common ones? Of course, some are difficult to pronounce or to understand. This is where the Internet can help. Google can find both pronunciation and meaning.
It starts with words. There are some that are easy to say, but difficult to spell. The word ‘indict,’ is a small, but complex word, said as ‘indite’ because the ‘c’ is silent. I have also seen it spelled as ‘indight.’ The spelling, of course, relates to its origin, in Latin, its root is ‘dicere,’ meaning ‘to say.’ It relates to other words such as ‘edict,’ ‘interdict,’ ‘verdict.’
That said, how we present words also matter. In part that is about word choice, but it is also why we create sentences. I love a sentence where both your tongue and brain are engaged. One you may read more than once for the sheer enjoyment. They are even used in children’s books:
“In after-years he liked to think that he had been in Very Great Danger during the Terrible Flood, but the only danger he had really been in was in the last half-hour of his imprisonment, when Owl, who had just flown up, sat on a branch of his tree to comfort him and told him a very long story about an aunt who had once laid a seagull’s egg by mistake, and the story went on and on, rather like this sentence, until Piglet who was listening out of his window without much hope, went to sleep quietly and naturally, slipping slowly out of the window towards the water until he was only hanging on by his toes, at which moment luckily, a sudden loud squawk from Owl, which was really part of the story, being what his aunt said, woke the Piglet up and just gave him time to jerk himself back into safety and say, “How interesting, and did she?” when—well, you can imagine his joy when at last he saw the good ship, The Brain of Pooh (Captain, C. Robin; 1st Mate, P. Bear) coming over the sea to rescue him.”
A.A. Milne does a masterful job in “Winnie-the-Pooh” with this 194-word sentence, even embedded with a little literary humour.
Let’s Expand our Words
If they are good enough for children, then it is about time adults make more use of long sentences, they don’t have to be hundreds of words in length, but sufficient to explain a concept, no less and no more. They don’t have to be complex either.
ENOUGH!!! I have had enough of people trying to dumb down our language. I must wonder if it is a sign of moral decay or degradation of society.
Does the need to dumb down and make everything simpler mark a terminal point of the achievement of humanity?
I hope not. I love turning to my dictionary and finding new words, then spinning them into powerful sentences.
Let’s change; let’s turn this around by using the right word to educate people and expand knowledge. Surely that is the role of the writer.
Bio: Peter B. Giblett
Peter B. Giblett is a freelance editor and writer with a background in business and technology management. He is also a non-practicing lawyer. English born, now living in Canada. He’s an Alumni of City University (London) and University of West London. Entrant and winner of National Novel Writing Month 2015, a novel he is currently editing.
He runs his own blog called GobbledeGoox, which provides thoughts on writing, blogging, words, and word craft.
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