Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Say what you mean

For some reason this week, I'm being reminded on all sides about the dangers of fuzzy language.

Here's another quote I found on page 6 of The Dictionary of Disagreeable English: "Soon, it is clear, we will be a society unable to distinguish one word from another, sense from nonsense, truth from falsehood, good from evil. We will soon utter only mono- and disyllabic words, be entertained only by what pleases our peers, and adore whatever is easy or effortless." (Robert Hartwell Fiske, in The Dimwit's Dictionary)

Then today, I read a thought-provoking essay by Lewis Lapham in the August issue of Harper's. In the essay, "Moving On," he writes about the changes in our society in the 31 years since Nixon resigned. One of his observations revolves around how truth has become so much a matter of spin that people don't seem able to discern it anymore. (I'm simplifying here.) He goes on to talk about how our language only perpetuates the problem when discussions of national affairs revolve around emotions and instincts, and history is forgotten. Here's what Lapham says at the end: "The language facilitates the transformation of a democratic republic into a military empire, moving on from a world in which words once were held accountable for their meanings, to a land of make-believe, securely defended, as is customary with empires, by the 'conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power.' " (Italics mine)

Maybe it seems nitpicky to harp on matters of grammar and usage, but how we use language says something about our character. If we cloud meaning with emotion and fuzzy language, it's harder to discern when we're speaking the truth.

The Bible encourages plain language, as well. Here are just a few of what I found:

"Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit." (Proverbs 12:17, ESV. The Hebrew translated 'speaks' means 'breathes out')

"Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity." (Jeremiah 9:5, ESV)

"But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation." (James 5:12, ESV)

When I talk about using plain language, I don't mean simplistic. English is a rich language, but our speech and writing fail to reflect that. Beautiful, elegant writing conveys meaning clearly and distinctly. So take the trouble to find the words to say what you really mean.

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