Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Words Matter

I'm a language nerd. I love words. And I really believe that choosing the best words to convey one's meaning is very, very important. That sounds like a no-brainer, I know.


scrabble letters spelling out "words."

When I was still teaching, my favourite unit in my writing course was one where students used their skills of observation and, over the course of a week, recorded in their journals five short passages, describing small moments they had witnessed that week which evoked a certain emotion. I asked them to use specific, concrete language to show each moment, and hopefully evoke the emotion in the reader, instead of telling the reader what to feel. "Showing, not telling" is every creative writing teacher's mantra. 

While the kids practiced being observant outside of class, in class we talked about imagery, language usage, and word choice, and each day we analyzed student passages from previous years. We talked about how changing one word in a paragraph could make a big difference. My favourite exemplar was a passage that tried to evoke a mood of nostalgia, and innocence, and which described several young children walking home at dusk, talking quietly, the sun setting behind them. One child dropped a toy gun and it was described as "clanking" on the pavement. I'd always ask the class, "What is the sound a plastic gun makes when you drop it?" They'd debate and usually someone would say, "thunk," or "clunk." And I'd reply, "Now, what makes a clanking sound?"  And someone would respond, "Uh... something made of metal?" I can still see the looks on their faces when realization dawned. "Yep," I'd say, "Changes the mood a little bit, don't you think?"  

I always felt that I had done my job as a writing teacher if students began to think more about the specific words they chose to employ, and understood how powerful one connotative word can be.

I still remember a student struggling to revise her final project, a children's book. And her telling me that searching for just the right words to show her character's actions was driving her crazy: "I can't decide if Teddy should skip down the stairs or thunder down the stairs. Should he slouch into the room or sidle into the room?" I knew she was overwhelmed, but I loved that she had discovered the power of a single word. 


sunset over a marina in South Carolina
Sunsets can be peaceful or ominous depending on the words used to describe them. 
I think we all use language carelessly. And most of the time that's understandable. We're chatting with family, we're tossing off an e-mail to a friend, we can't be expected to watch every word we say, all the time. Otherwise conversation would simply dry up for fear of offending, or saying the wrong thing. Sometimes we just need to relax and talk. 

But, you know, sometimes the words we choose to communicate with bear closer examination. Because our words often say so much more than the speaker, or writer, thinks they do. 

For instance. Pronouns. Pronouns are very important. When I was still working, one of my jobs as head of the English department  was to chair a multi-department committee whose aim was to foster literacy skills in students. We ran numerous activities inside and outside the classroom. And we needed full participation from every department. The idea was that literacy wasn't just the job of the English teacher. When I asked a particular head to send someone from their department along to our meeting, it was immediately obvious that the woman who showed up was a reluctant member of our group. In response to each topic of discussion, our new member would say: "Your problem is... If you only .... What you should do is...." Eventually I snapped, "WRONG pronoun, L." That got a laugh, but made no difference. She never attended another meeting. I don't know if she even noticed that she had effectively distanced herself from the rest of us with that one pronoun. But everyone else did. In fact, if committee members wanted to make a joke about an issue we were discussing, they'd say, "What you should do, Sue..." And we'd all laugh.

Here's another example. Many years ago my boss made a staffing decision that had a big effect on my career, at least in the short term. I asked him informally several times for the decision to be reviewed. And when nothing changed, I decided that, if the situation persisted, I would apply for a position that had just been advertised in another school. When I sat down with him to formally discuss my concerns, he seemed surprised and a bit impatient, and said, "My goodness, Susan. If I'd known you were fussing about it, I'd have changed it sooner." Fussing? Well, that word certainly put my concerns in their place. I was angry, feeling undervalued, willing to move to another school.... but, I wasn't... just... fussing. Did he use that word deliberately? I doubt it; he was a kind man. Still, the word "fussing" made me feel a bit diminished, as if my concerns were unimportant. Silly old me, to be fussing.



I know, I know. It's one word. And there are so many other crucial, catastrophic things happening these days to worry about. But sometimes words matter. One word can change the whole meaning of a passage. Alter the mood of a conversation. Alienate the reader or listener, subtly diminish them, or demean them, or sometimes escalate a brewing conflict without even trying.

Like a few weeks ago, when the President south of the border said in reaction to a question about the ongoing trade negotiations between our countries and Mexico: "Things have to change... Canada has been very spoiled up to now." Spoiled? Children are "spoiled." His using that word said so much more than was intended. It showed that he does not perceive the relationship between our two countries as one of mutual respect between equals. Clearly, to him, one country is the dad, and the other the spoiled child who needs to be reined in, or punished, or something. 


Oh, I know I sound anal. Of course we all make mistakes, bloopers, blurt things out we should have bitten back. Me. I have to watch what I say when I'm hungry. When my blood sugar drops, my filter evaporates. I am particularly blunt at 4:30 in the afternoon. I remember one after-school meeting when I blurted a comment, and my friend elbowed me and murmured, "You do know you said that out loud, don't you?"  "I know," I grimaced, "I need a cup of tea and a snack." 

sunrise over the Rideau River, near Manotick, Ontario
Sunrise on the Rideau. No filter. Ha. 
 I don't expect that we filter every word we utter all the time. I just think that we should use language judiciously in certain situations, when we know our audience is upset, sensitive, or liable to be injured by a thoughtless word. I'm not talking about rampant political correctness, or washing all the colour and vigour out of language. Perish the thought. I just mean that we should be more aware of the power of word connotation. For good and for bad. Poets understand that. In poetry every word counts. 

And we should be aware that our words may reveal more to our audience about ourselves than we might realize. 

And... and this is important... we need to understand that language can tell us much about another person's real, sometimes unspoken, attitudes and beliefs. Especially language used by people in positions of power... in unguarded moments. 

Words that powerful people use... we should pay very close attention to those. 








So, I've had my little rant. I feel much better getting that off my chest. Thanks for reading, as always. Now...anything you'd like to get off your chest, my friends? 






Linking up with Thursday Favourite Things,  #SaturdayShareLink-up, and #fakeittillyoumakeit 

34 comments:

  1. I'm miserly with my words at the moment, travelling, not so much time for blogging and commenting. But I have to say: Rant on, Sistah!! Total agreement, here, on the power of words and on the responsibility to choose them carefully. (and since you've tiptoed into politics here, didn't Laura Bush wield her words well!)
    p.s. you must have been a marvellous teacher, one of the memorable ones.

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    1. She did indeed, Frances. A powerful piece, especially coming from a woman who rarely weighs in on political issues.

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  2. Yes , the importance of words & the importance of good teaching . I find language fascinating & love to find new words to slip in to conversation , not always in the right place but I do try . It’s why I don’t care for swear words ( I know , some of my favourite people swear ) not for any prissy reasons but it’s just so boring to hear the same words being used constantly when we have such a variety available . That’s my little rant .
    I think perhaps people need to be able to express themselves for their mental wellbeing . I remember one of my nephews was slow to speak as a child . He seemed unhappy & bad tempered but once he mastered words he was a different child . He turned out to be a very happy person & a whiz with figures . I often wonder if more of our disaffected youth had the right education & could voice their frustrations , would their lives improve ? Probably wouldn’t do much for political leaders though - no hope for them .
    Wendy in York

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    1. I love finding just the right word too. Although I do admit that I often follow a great word with a teensy bit of profanity:)

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  3. Well said. I rail frequently about language mis-use, sometimes to my detriment, and sometimes feel complete despair about what I hear and read. The current dirty little fashion for saying exactly what you think (vile, cruel, destructive) and then claiming you were taken out of context is despicable. I cannot abide linguistic laziness and used to take my children to task when they were teenagers, removing myself from conversations if they became a constant stream of like, you know, it's er, it's er, stuff...they seemed to grow out of it fortunately. Conversation is a joy and impossible if you run out of words. Or never had them to start with. It is recognised as a genuine problem and setback to learning in the early years (and onwards) here in the UK, with an increasing number of children entering school with very limited vocabulary and thus with communication problems. This is not due to English being a secondary language either - it is because they are not spoken to. When I think how many words teachers expend every day...I realise I can sound like Affronted of West Yorkshire but I see it more and more, children out and about engrossed in the parental phone, even when walking (yes, really, in a shop at Christmas, which wasn't helpful) and not joining in the chat. Right. That is my oar, well inserted. Funnily enough, when I feel a bit despairing, I listen to this. Such words, such a voice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrGDpcXalIs

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    1. I think that's why discussion is so important in the classroom. I used to have marked formal class discussions with my grade nine classes. They'd be given the questions in advance so they could prepare notes and not have to "wing it." They could even read from their notes if they were too nervous. Everyone had to talk at least once, and reply to a point made by someone else at least once. They'd often worry about someone making their point before them... I remember that happening when I was in school. But I always said they should then respond to the other person, by agreeing and then going on to speak their own point. Worked a treat. It was lovely to see them take it so seriously, holding up their hand, and then with great gravity saying something like "I'd like to agree with Jon and with Susie in part but would like to add that... blah, blah, blah." It was one of the best teaching tools I ever used. They learned to have an intelligent discussion, to respond to others politely, even the shy kids shone and often read their prepared notes for their first point but relaxed and joined in more easily once the first time talking was done. We had a fulsome discussion of the course material which was great review just before exams... and my marks were all recorded by the time class was over... no marking to take home! Win, win, win!

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  4. I love this. Yes, word choice matters. Words matter. From one former English teacher to another, thank you!

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  5. Words, which ones and when used, are so telling. They inform. #notmypresident uses vermin, or infestation to describe people and from that we gain powerful insight and take warning. You and others are a balm to my troubled heart. I read you to find other thoughts to occupy my mind. Thank you for that.

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    1. You're welcome, Lach. It certainly is a stressful time down where you are. We feel it up here too, although not as much.

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  6. Word choice definitely matters! Especially when that president you mentioned before refers to immigrants as "animals" and claims they are "infesting" our country. On a related note...will Canada be willing to take some American refugees? Asking for a friend ;)

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  7. Applause! Do not think you sound anal at all. There are no shortage of examples of this bullying-by-insult approach by the current US President. And I agree that "fussing" diminished your emotional state. I noticed in that era that many of my male managers were discomfited by anything but "nice" feelings and preferred very constrained expression of emotions. I can, based on :fussing", almost see a certain type- though I may be inferring too much.

    @nohatnogloves: I recently sat in a pub next to two young men who were discussing their political viewpoints. Every third word was "like" (I counted). I did not say anything, but it was a struggle.

    re pronouns: I still correct my adult childrens' grammar; it's not "Me and Sam went to the movies", or "Between you and I, she's going to get the job". The notion of case seems to have vaporized.

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    1. Re: the pub story. At lease they care about ..like... politics:)

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  8. Totally with you on this. Words are very important, however, we all need to feel that we can relax when chatting with spouse, family and friends at times. It's so sad when the young seem to lack the skills of good communication as a result of not being spoken to, however, there is no excuse for our political leaders when speaking in the public arena.

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    1. In the past few years there's a movement here to revolutionize the teaching of French as a second language to encourage much more French conversation in the class by not correcting students every time them make a mistake. That tends to dry up conversation for everyone. Imagine feeling as if you had to be perfect before you open your mouth.

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  9. I concur that word choices matter, whether those words are spoken or written. But choosing words carefully to achieve the most desirable impact is possible only when the speaker/writer has analytical skills and knows other words that might be more appropriate to the situation.

    On the other hand, when words come tripping off an unfiltered tongue and we are listening loudly enough, we have the opportunity to learn much about the speaker's or writer's beliefs, values and intentions.

    As the estimable Ms. Angelou once said, "When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time."

    Ann in Missouri

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  10. Hear! Hear! I am a self professed word nerd as well as a retired language teacher and I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've said here.

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  11. Bravo Susan, and bravo all of you. My mantra is "Never hurt anyone." and I loathe bullies and bullying more than anything. The president is a bully of the first order and does not appear to care whether he hurts anyone's feelings (or hurts them physically, monetarily, or any other way). I am so angry, yet I must to restrain myself constantly from making comments, or saying what I think, practically every waking moment, now. I do allow myself to make corrections to facts, or point out the facts to people, in language as inoffensive as possible - when the other person is able to handle criticism or even discussion (which is not as often as I would like).

    I don't believe there is such a thing as political correctness, except in so far as the people who object to controlling themselves, and to not being actively offensive, are whining about having to be polite. They tend to become offended when you so much as point out that they were rude or thoughtless.

    You have hit on a sore point, as you can see. Particularly today, when I have seen arguments to the effect of: "you let him get away with it, why do you complain when I do it?" Are you children, complaining to your parent about a sibling? And then there is, "he did it, I should be able to do the same thing" when I want to respond with the old saw: Two wrongs don't make a right." Not to mention that the acts were not the same.

    Let me end on a better, happier note. May I introduce you to my Facebook friend, author and fellow horse lover, Tania Kindersley, whose most recent book is _Words Matter: The English Language and the Happy Horse_? She is a sublime writer, on her Facebook pages and in her various books (she is publishing them as e-books, though I wish they were available as hard copies so I could give them as gifts). The horse books are applicable to most everyone's life, but she also has a book that is called _77 Ways to Make Your Life Very Slightly Better_ and it does more than that. It can be called a self-help book, but I would call it a way to towards enlightenment in your own life and within yourself. She writes of the simplest things with grace, humor, and feeling (even when she is vastly put out (or worse)).

    Thank you for the chance to vent. I needed it today - and every day lately.

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    1. You're welcome, Cynthia. I'll check out your friend's page on FB.

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  12. "Fussing... " Woah! I would have had a problem with that word as well, along with "You." While I've stopped posting on Twitter, back when it was 140 characters, it was a great exercise in making every word count.

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    1. About Twitter.. it's too easy now!

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  13. Yes,indeed,I agree. The beauty of one's own and foreign languages as well,exploring words and sentences and subleties.....
    It is difficult for me (and this is not fishing for the compliments but a sincere feeling) to be aware of my boundedness but nevertheless I decided to speak/write/communicate in my other languages,one can only succeded by striving. But sometimes,one learns wrong, reading the magasines or newspapers-this is so sad
    You must have been a wonderful teacher!
    Dottoressa

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    1. Thanks, Dottoressa. I can't imagine feeling comfortable communicating in another language. So...so... arduous.

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  14. Words have much power to express emotions, situations and experiences to those around us...one word changed can make all the difference as you have so eloquently pointed out with the well chosen examples. The old saying "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me" has been proven false...hurtful words can invoke deep emotional responses and create scars that can last years. The words of bullies are particularly vile whether spoken in a playground or in the political arena. You did well to handle the 'fussing' comment made by your administrator...it was a demeaning word to select although perhaps he didn't see it that way. I shall endeavour to be even more particular than usual about the words I choose when holding conversations in the future...thanks for the great reminder of the power of words! Cheers, Alayne

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    1. I'm sure he didn't see it as demeaning. But it spoke volumes to me about how seriously he took my concerns. I hope I'm not to blame for your being speechless, or wordless for the next while:)

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  15. You are so correct! Words matter so much. I'm struggling now with pronouns for my students (college age). Some are fine with gendered words, while others prefer to use plural ungendered pronouns and become quite upset with he/she, etc. I do my best in the classroom, but it is difficult to teach complex topics and remember not only the students' names when there are 50 - 60 in the class, but also their preferred pronouns. Then I try to help them analyze the current policy making by tweets, and by the end of the day I can't manage a coherent though much less one in which the words are carefully chosen!

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    1. Oh. My. God. I cannot even imagine! Well, I can imagine.. which is why I groaned at your comment. I'm imagining my issues with remembering names then adding the whole pronoun thing.
      Teaching verb tenses used to drive crazy. I do remember when I first started teaching coming home one night with a raging headache and Hubby saying..."Was today the "had had" lesson?" By the time the lesson was over I had had it with the verb to have."

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  16. Very interesting again Susan, so much so I am now late for a meeting:) . Words can make or break relationships. FB users have found that. The familial splits over a mis used word appears frequent so I hear from friends.
    https://www.muttonstyle.com/

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    1. Thanks, Anna. Sorry to make you late:)

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  17. I was quietly horrified to read an appeal for qualified translators to help reunite migrant children with their parents. Some too young to know their age, or the family story. Even too young to speak.

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    1. Oh my. What a mess that is. I cannot even begin to imagine how families will ever be reunited. So sad.

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.