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.
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.
|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 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?