In praise of clear words

Man, I have to agree with Wynette about butchering the English language. When I hear “me” used in the place of “I” it’s like the screech of chalk on the chalkboard; it’s like sciatica in the brain. To add to her essay rather than contradict it is my pleasure. Diagramming sentences, I also learned at that little Catholic school next to St Mary’s U. in San Antonio. My talents in diagramming fell short of adroitness and I’m not sure they had value. We could have just memorized the parts of speech and moved on, maybe.

Actually English is not a mere language, it’s a way of thinking. It helps to define our culture, and as language changes the culture follows, even though we may not approve of those changes. To begin with (I use that phrase in purposeful error to illustration common wrong speech), the people of our history have bequeathed to us a beautiful tool in language, one we use to express our character – our true selves – if only we take the time to develop that skill. And character is the only thing we take with us when we enter immortality.

What makes a writer worth reading? It’s the one who uses words to paint an Autumn morning. It’s the one who places words in phrases and connects phrases in uncommon ways to give us poetry. Example: Our Star Spangled Banner, which at first reading is confusing but after analysis is awe-inspiring and swells our hearts with pride and our eyes with tears. And he uses the word “flag” only once. It’s the one who creates euphemisms that tickle our inner being. Maybe “Hill Street Blues” of the 80s was so popular because a drug pusher was an “unlawful pharmacist”.

Why was “True Grit” with Jeff Bridges by some critics better than the John Wayne version? For one thing it was the script, artfully crafted dialogue done mostly without contractions. And I love this one: In “Appaloosa” with Ed Harris as a gun for hire, a Paladin-like character who is short on words, who has as his back up man (Viggio Mortensen) with an 8 gauge shotgun and a West Point education. A body is laying on the ground with Harris kneeling next to it in observation. A bystander says about the dead person, “I guess he was not being thrasonical when he said he knew the governor.” Ed Harris slowly turns his head at Mortensen behind him with a quizzical face, and Mortensen calmly says, “Boastful.” Good thing I wasn’t drinking something at the time, it would’ve come up through my nose. Word crafting is one of our most appreciated human creations and dull we would be if we didn’t take notice.

Language binds us together as a community, a culture, defines how we get along with each other, makes complicated ideas more communicable and life more efficient. It removes chaos if used to speak truth. Language is used by the tongue, which displays the heart of a man; therefore it is best used with forethought rather than afterthought, when one wishes he could take back what he said. Words should be tasty for we may have to eat them later. And the tongue is like the rudder of a great ship, small but steering the person into calm waters or leeward shoals.

Language divides us also. Consider “My Fair Lady”, the movie in which Henry Higgins takes a Cockney guttersnipe, changes her speech, and takes her to a formal party all dressed up like Liberace, and has people guessing that she must be some foreign countess. Speech: that great divider of the coarse from the refined; the rube from the enlightened, the dipstick from the gentleman whom everyone wants to know. Well chosen aforethought words can propel us to situations which complement our speech. In contrast, a lady was telling radio talk show hosts a story of a sad situation and how she overcame it. At the end I would have clapped as they did except for the, “ahs”, the “you knows”, the “I means”… words that fill in gaps when the brain gasps for words. For goodness sakes, if you are going to tell a million people a story, please practice it a few times first.

Comment on this Article

About Author

Comments are closed.