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.


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

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