Blunting Our Greatest Tool

By Jason Menard

Language is a wonderful thing. The very thought that you can string together completely random symbols and not only have them form a very real image in your mind, but all share that image with someone else is absolutely awe-inspiring.

After all, I can write c-a-t and you’ll probably have a fairly solid idea of the animal to which I’m referring. I can write those letters in seconds, yet convey a fully formed image. My other option would be to try to draw that animal. Maybe you’d get it right — chances are you’d be saying, “What’s that? A giraffe? A mongoose? A cowboy eating a hamburger on a pogo stick?”

I’m really not a good artist…

We have such a wonderfully rich and diverse language that it saddens me to think that we overuse so many words. Nt only do we overuse them, but we cheapen our prose by resorting to sad clichés, trite figures of speech, and — worst of all — biz speak.

There are a number of words that should be, if not immediately stricken from the English language, placed on strict parole. And I’m not talking about the words that creep you out for no real reason (moist is probably number one on my list. I just hate that word), but I’m referring to those words that we’ve butchered through inappropriate use.

You can probably rhyme off a list with me without even thinking when it comes to poor business communications. Words like ‘leverage,’ ‘paradigm,’ ‘synergy,’ ‘socialize,’ and ‘communicate.’ It seems certain businesses don’t use things any more — they leverage their opportunities. They don’t talk to people — they socialize their message in order to effectively communicate their core competencies and interface with their target demographics.

And don’t even get me started on ‘thinking outside of the box,’ ‘low-hanging fruit,’ and ‘win-win scenarios.’ It’s all about trying to sound smart by using big words instead of showing your intelligence by the quality of your content.

So what ever happened to go old plain speech? I blame the school system, to be honest.

Think about it. When you were in school, what was the defining characteristic of your written submissions? When you had to hand in an essay, what was the one key that unlocked the potential for a passing mark?

That’s right. The word count.

Forget trying to be clear, concise, and present a solid argument. Don’t worry about writing so that your reader is engaged, entertained, and informed. No, make sure you stuff as many adjectives, adverbs, and empty words in your piece as possible so that you can reach that arbitrarily imposed-upon word threshold.

“So Timmy, sure you wrote an eloquent piece that proved your argument without a shadow of a doubt, left no questions unanswered, and still resonates deep within my soul. But I can’t accept it because you only used 534 words and this was supposed to be a 1,000-word essay. You failed!”

It’s a focus on quantity over quality. And it doesn’t serve students well when they try to move into the real world, either in journalism or business. After all, there the focus is on (or should be on) brevity, clarity, and getting the right message to the right person in the way they want it. Business writers would classify this change as a paradigm shift — I say it’s just bad teaching leading to bad writing.

What’s the solution? It’s tough because as bad as things are at the upper-end of the spectrum, where polysyllabic words are preferred to simple, clear speech, it’s getting worse at the lower end. Writing in 140-character bursts, trying to prevent texting-induced carpal tunnel, and instant messaging place a premium on short forms and colloquialisms, and good writing and grammar are casualties of that war.

Really, already-tired phrases such as LOL, ROTFLMA, and other text-isms are becoming the norm in youth communications. When a whole generation is comfortable communicating in that manner, how do you argue against it?

A few years back I read an essay in a book called Voices of Quebec. In it the author discussed the challenges of teaching young kids in Quebec who were embracing joual. His students took pride in creating a new language, of sorts. They revelled in the fact that they could communicate in a way that was foreign to their older counterparts.

But the argument was that joual was fine if you wanted to restrict your life to eating steamies and hanging out on the corner. However, why would you want to restrict yourself to that one level of conversation when language can mean so much.

Language, when used well, can add richness and depth to one’s life. It can go beyond saying, “Hey, there’s an apple” to vividly describing what the apple’s like visually and texturally. In fact, you can almost get to the point where you can not only taste the apple through words, but smell the wind wafting through the orchard.

Empty words, whether they’re biz speak or textually challenged, have the same impact on people — none whatsoever. Language can be a wonderful tool that is accessible to all.

Unfortunately, too many of us are choosing to blunt that tool to the point where it’s been rendered useless.

1 thought on “Blunting Our Greatest Tool

  1. Dave Mitchell

    This certainly rings true in my ears. From a business perspective it is the impetus behind my favourite passtime, BS Bingo. It amazes me in this ‘fast paced world’ we live in that some much important communique is laden with fluff.

    Dead on with the education system as well. I clearly remember the moment in grade 10 english when I realized that BS was the key to adoration. Short stories and journals were not about how cleanly I could convey my own message, but figuring out what the ‘bar’ was and stuffing it until so safely packaged with soppy sponge words that its original sharp edge would never hurt anyone.


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