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Wednesday, 25 February 2015 15:40

Words, language and grammar do matter

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book“In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

— George Orwell

We live in an age — the relativity of truth — in which Orwell’s adage seems as dated as monocles or top hats. Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution led to Social Darwinism, a philosophy pitting one human being against another with survival of the fittest as the supreme law for success, so Einstein’s theory of relativity changed popular philosophy and cultural mores as radically as it did the study of physics.

Published in 1905, followed a decade later by the terrible destruction of World War I, the idea of relativity moved from physics to a Western culture cut lose from authority and institutions. 

If everything is relative, then there can be no truth. If everything is relative, then we must all be little Pilates, muttering “What is truth?” as a rhetorical question.

Adding to this intellectual goulash is the meaning of language — or rather, our increasing abuse of language and meaning, an abuse that, incidentally, Orwell fought (See his Politics and the English Language online). 

We employ euphemisms, jargon, and cant to describe everything from immigration to government intrusion,  from our various wars to terrorist violence here at home. Example: in 2009, Major Nidal Hasan gunned down dozens of military personnel at Fort Hood, Texas. Recently the victims, dead and wounded, received Purple Hearts, though the incident, during which Maj. Hasan repeatedly shouted “Allah Akbar,” is still listed as “workplace violence.”  

Politicians, some corporate heads, and many individual citizens — perhaps most of us — contort our language to obfuscate issues and to cover mistakes and wrongdoing. Perhaps you are a progressive in politics? Have you ever debated a conservative and felt as if the two of you were speaking a different language? In some ways, you were, because neither of you insisted on a definition of terms before beginning the debate.

Some of our celebrity smoke-blowers provide moments of high entertainment. Remember when Bill Clinton questioned what the meaning of “is” is? Remember George Bush and some of his convoluted explanations? We laugh at these jokers, but we also twist and turn language to cover ourselves as well. From the 4-year-old who says “The lamp fell over” to the governor who says “Taxes were raised last year” (ah, that passive voice so beloved by our politicians), from the student who can’t turn in the essay because the printer isn’t working to the man cheating on his taxes (“Everyone does it”): we all try to slip and slide our way using language and rhetorical mirrors.

Fortunately for all of us who want some semblance of truth and clarity in our language, there are a few warriors mounting the ramparts. Constance Hale (Sin and Syntax and Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch), Charles Murray (The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead), other writers, editors, and publishers of various books on grammar and style as well as the teachers who bring them alive into the classroom: these are the stalwarts who keep fighting against the corruption of language written and spoken.

Chief among these hardy souls is Robert Hartwell Fiske. Fiske, who lives in Rockport, Massachusetts, has for years edited and published Vocabula Review, an online journal about the English language. Here and in his books, Fiske has attracted both applause for his insistence on the importance of language properly used and catcalls from those who judge him as too restrictive in his demands.

I am one of those in the applause section. (For the record, several of my articles have appeared at www.vocabula.com). I have never read one of Fiske’s books straight up; they aren’t designed to be digested as a full meal. Yet three of his books — Silence, Language, & Society: A Guide to Style and Meaning, Grace and Compassion; Elegant English, the Second Edition; and To the Point: a Dictionary of Concise Writing — sit here just to the right of me on the desk where I write, serving as reference books, yes, but also as a conscience, a reminder to write as well, as clearly, and as concisely as I can.

Silence, Language, & Society remind us first of the importance of silence in writing and speaking. Fiske also reminds us that “where meanings are mangled, minds are also,” and uses a good part of his book to demonstrate this axiom.

Elegant English addresses the use of rhetoric in our language. Here in this edition Fiske defines classic rhetorical devices — everything from aposiopesis to zeugma — followed by dozens of examples of these devices from literature. Several of these examples I have used in the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course I teach. (Two complaints here: the book’s small size make it difficult to hold open, and the organization might have benefited dividing Chapter Two, which is almost 300 pages long). 

Published by W.W. Norton, To The Point advocates using the correct word in the context of a sentence, getting rid of jargon and wordy phrases, and building a pithy vocabulary. This is the volume that jolts the conscience: every time I open it, I find that I am guilty of many offenses cited by Fiske. Having written movie and play reviews, I am certain, for example, I have written “So-ands-so played the character of a picaro” (wordy) instead of “So-and-so played a picaro.” 

In these three books, Robert Hartwell Fiske reminds us that how we speak and write has consequences. “A society,” he writes, “is generally as lax as its language.”

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