The Well-Written Word

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I freely admit to being a pedant regarding the written word. Given our rich vocabulary and well defined rules of grammar and punctuation, it seems perfectly reasonable that we use it correctly and fully. But of course too, it has to effectively communicate the message we are trying to deliver. Given that our messages may be intended for different audiences, it is essential that the writing reflect their education, socio-economic backgrounds and their propensity to stay the course through the entire text.

So it was with some trepidation that I listened to a renowned linguist talking about the natural and rapid changes which all languages have gone, and continue to go, through. I am taking a course on The Story of Human Language, given by Professor John McWhorter.

The first few lectures dealt with the beginnings of the spoken word. Quickly however, it moved to how and why, inevitably, the sounds change, the words themselves change and even the meanings of words that remain change over time. Of course, we all understand that change occurs. Nobody who has sat through a Shakespeare play, trying to follow the plot without the Cole’s Notes, recognises this truth. But of course change occurs in decades, not centuries. Nobody today speaks like Professor Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913).

Soon I was beginning to doubt the rationale for my quibbling. However, as we progressed to the written word I became reassured. I learned,( surprise, surprise), that we speak differently than we write. I also learned that the written language is significantly more enduring than the spoken word.

There are obvious reasons for this dichotomy. The written word stays around much longer, so it tends to be copied, duplicated and appropriated by others over a longer period of time. Also, unlike the spoken word, there are no other sensory cues as to meaning or intent, such as tone, timing or body language. Every nuance must be delivered by the words – or the punctuation. Most importantly, there is, typically, no feedback to the writer to facilitate a second chance to get the meaning across if the first rendition failed in its objective. Social media, of course, is now supplying that feedback, but still rarely provides the opportunity for clarification and conciliation.

So, while most of what is written is not intended for long term import, it remains advisable to ensure clarity and unambiguousness. Easily said, much more difficult to do.

As Dorothy Parker said: If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favour you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

Guest post: Len Ashby


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