Sunday, February 14, 2010

Omit Needless Words--Or Heedless Concepts?

My husband thinks English is a silly language. As far as he's concerned, it should be spelled phonetically (i.e. fonetikalee).

The best argument against that, as far as I'm concerned, is that English is spelled phonetically--provided you speak English the way they did in England 400 years ago. 'Knight' really did used to be pronounced 'k-nig-h-t' rather than 'ni-t'.

Plus there's the issue of the language being portable. Someone living in Scotland pronounces words differently than someone in Barbados, and if we all spelled phonetically, then we'd all have a heck of a time understanding written communication from different countries. Standarized spelling--even when it's illogical--is more useful than strictly transcribing the sounds that come out of our mouths, because those sounds change with time and with distance.

Meanings change also. The word 'awful' used to mean basically the same thing as the word 'awesome'.

And I got thinking about this today because the Washington Post had an article (locked down for subscribers only now, so I won't link it) arguing against banning the word 'retard'. They made the point that the problem isn't the word, it's the attitude behind using it a particular way.

The term 'mental retardation' was originally introduced as a kinder way to describe intellectual disabilities than the commonly-used terms of that time, which included 'idiot', 'imbecile' and 'moron'.

And why did they want a new term? Because the general population was using the words 'idiot', 'imbecile' and 'moron' the same way people these days use the word 'retard'. It was becoming impossible to use those terms dispassionately without implying an insult.

So I think the Washington Post makes a fair point: The problem isn't the words, it's how they're used. If you ban a word, there's another that can be twisted into something just as ugly; you're better off attacking the offensive mindset rather than the language being used to express it.

A writer needs a fine ear for not only what words mean, but what they mean when used in a variety of situations. Mark Twain is famous for (well, lots of great writing, but also for) saying the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

This ties in to the wisdom behind Strunk and White's advice, "Omit needless words." If you say exactly what you mean, that doesn't take up much space. A punchline is usually brief. So is a scathing retort. So is an aphorism.

I'm certain the reason my first drafts are longer than my more polished versions is because figuring out what I want to say takes up much more space than saying it. Once I've hammered out what I wished to convey, I can sharpen my language and express the idea much more succinctly.

We blather only when we're trying to figure out what we mean to say--or when we haven't determined the exactly-right word yet.

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Do you agree? Disagree? Is wordiness always a weakness, or is this call to be succinct yet another symptom of our society's lessening attention span--the 'sound bite' syndrome?

Are there words that have too much emotional weight to ever be reclaimed? Is there merit in banning them? Or should we fear any tendency to remove words (and thus concepts) from the public consciousness? Is doing so a form of thought control or propaganda?

I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

9 comments:

maybe genius said...

I'm never in favor of censorship or banning anything, but I do wholeheartedly agree that we need to challenge people who use certain terms with a certain attitude. I'm particularly sensitive to the word "retard," and I tend to challenge people when they use it as an insult. However, I'm not opposed to the word being used in literature, either in its appropriate usage (i.e. retard the process) or incorporated into dialogue because the character speaking happens to be the kind of character who would stubbornly use that term.

As you said, banning the word doesn't change the attitude.

RE wordiness: I think it largely depends on the genre, as well as our current societal standards. I think it's more acceptable in literary fiction to be long-winded, but even so, writers usually can't get away with pages and pages of purple prose and description of hats anymore.

Wordiness doesn't always mean bad writing, but you do have to know exactly what you're doing. Otherwise it just reads like a lot of rambling. :) If every word is necessary, then it is what it is.

Whirlochre said...

Is dumbing down the same as 'simplifising'?

It's true that you have to go for the concept rather than the word.

And if they ban imbecile, I'm not playing any more.

Kate said...

Banning words is always a slippery slope. I think it is far better to let the meanings evolve.

As for wordiness, I agree less words are generally better. I know that when I take the time to properly revise my blog posts, they get a lot shorter. On the other hand, my fiction tends to be a bit spare, which isn't always the voice I'm going for. On the gripping hand, I just finished a novel in which the author intentially used tons of unnecessary and superfluously hypersyllabic* words to establish an Austen-y voice, but I just found it trite.

*like these

Sarf's Travels. said...

After reviewing your post most intently, and pondering its meaning at great length, I have come to the conclusion that I have no idea what I am trying to say.


Yea to the point is also good in programming also, I get a few design docs that are wordy and huge walls of text, first thing I do is boil them down to bullet points and email it back with "is this what you meant?"

Some design docs are bullet points and short descriptions and examples of how it will be used, much nicer for sitting down and programming what they want.

jjdebenedictis said...

Maybe Genius: That's a good point; there are many things a piece of writing can be aimed at doing, and if a piece works, then it works. Often the writing that is funniest, or most beautiful, takes up a non-negligle amount of space on the page.

Whirlochre:
simplifising

That may be my new favourite word. Actually, no; 'imbecile' is still better.

Kate: I read a book that had a very frilly-worded first scene. It almost caused me to put the book down, but I'm so glad I didn't, because it turned out to be an awesome novel.

The writers were trying to establish a certain impression of a character in that scene, but they probably mistakenly gave some readers a faulty impression of their writing style instead.

Sarf: I can totally see how that would happen. Some people just keep typing until they've got all their thoughts down, then hit "send". If they looked over the document once (edited), they'd probably realize they had figured out their own objectives a bit better and could summarize.

Sarah Laurenson said...

she-ee-ee-it. (phonetic southern drawl)

And retard? We talk about some chemical that retards growth and they want us to find a different word? But I digress...

Yes. It's not the gun. It's the imbecile holding it that's dangerous.

jjdebenedictis said...

Sarah:
Yes. It's not the gun. It's the imbecile holding it that's dangerous.

Ooh, ooh! Funny story, funny story!

I remember listening to two dorks talking on the bus one night. They were disparaging the drivers on the road and sneering about how people are just stupid menaces behind the wheel.

The conversation drifted to other subjects, and soon they began snarling about gun control and how anyone who wants to own a gun should be able to--how it's not guns that are dangerous, it's the people using them.

And I kept thinking, "Um, yes, and those would be all the same people you don't even trust to operate a car safely...?"

writtenwyrdd said...

Generally speaking, I think you're right. Sometimes you might want to expand for bits of backstory or description (depending on what sort of book you're writing); but if you don't know what to say you write a lot to convey it. Just like with speech. An awkward response is a dead giveaway for an unrehearsed response during an interrogation, or stammering a cue for embarrassment/social discomfort. These verbal responses echo the written verbosity of an unrefined paragraph.

You certainly wouldn't want to communicate 'I don't know what to say here' to your readers by blathering on awkwardly.

jjdebenedictis said...

Writtenwyrdd:
An awkward response is a dead giveaway for an unrehearsed response during an interrogation

Ooh, I didn't know that. There's something a writer can certainly use to show when a person is lying or not.

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