Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vol #1, Col #3: "Trippingly the Tongue”: Reading, Writing, and Rhetoric, Three Rs in Desperate Need of Revisiting

I prefer the term ‘shades’ to ‘sunglasses’, calling men ‘gents’ or ‘fellas’, vocalizing that ‘I shall’ rather than ‘I will’ partake in a given activity, and receiving flattery that consists of being described as ‘fetching’, ‘delectable’, ‘well-mannered’, and ‘poised’, instead of having my looks equated with a certain temperature reading one experiences in the summer.

I may even bust out a little ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ action, if the occasion calls for it (interestingly, and counter to what one would expect, my brief foray into the realm of linguistics taught me that ‘thou’ was actually the common term used to refer to others, whereas ‘you’ was reserved for address to those of higher rank. But I digress).

The important message to grasp from my elaborate comparison of synonyms is this: as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein so rightly pointed out, in the early 1900s, “the limits of [one’s] language mean the limits of [one’s] world.” In other words, it’s not just a matter of electing one word over another, one’s choices in terms deeply reflect his/her thought processes. Further, as we all know from our adoption of “professionalism” at job interviews, the way in which we express ourselves, verbally and textually, serves as a signifier of the groups to which we belong.

Carrying on from last week’s discussion of the misuse and abuse of words of great significance, an elaboration on modern society’s general “bastardization” (pardon my French) of the English language seemed merited. While discourse scholars would argue that my stance is that of a conservative “prescriptivist” (ie: one who is incapable of accepting the so-called natural evolution of language, and so makes it his/her mission to instruct others on how to speak/write properly in an attempt to resurrect the dead aspects of a given dialect), I’d like to pose a personal challenge to said individuals to be able to come up with 101 (at least!) unique MODERN ways to describe love and/or the beauty of a woman as eloquently and as effectual as Shakespeare, “the man” himself. Any takers? No, I didn’t think so!

While both my spoken vernacular and scribbles have, at times, been labeled “verbose” (no doubt a consequence of my passion and therefore derived influence from literature of times gone by), I’ll have you know that never once have I received criticism in regards to my elocution. In fact, quite the opposite is true… I’ve oft been characterized as one with a strong command of my mother tongue; something I chalk up to the fact that yes, as a child, I used to read the dictionary as a bedtime story.

So while I don’t (and for that matter can’t) expect a restoration of the “word-smithing” practices pervasive during the Elizabethan era, I do have some suggestions as to how to improve the proficiency of your own dialogue, be it written or uttered:

1) Cut Back on Cussing

Though I admit this is a problematic area for me, as well, particularly when I’m immersed in casual social arenas (undoubtedly a consequence of touring trashy bars and hanging out with punk rockers for so many years), the excessive use of profanity in one’s speech ultimately makes said person sound ignorant. Just like love, the “f-bomb” should be reserved for when you really mean it, and by that I mean NOT as an interjection into your sentences every second or third word. If you’re really parched for terms of equal emotional connotation, I suggest taking a gander at that old dusty thesaurus that is peering out, desperately waiting to be noticed, on your bookshelf. He and you could become the best of friends, if only you’d just give him a chance. While you’re at it,’s Word of the Day FB app a go – you won’t be disappointed.

2) Revisit the Rules of Syntax

Any ESL student can tell ya that learning English, because of all of its irregularities, requires substantial dedication and skill. However, that does not give us native speakers (who have lifelong exposure) an excuse for laxness when it comes to clause formation, especially not those of you who are currently enrolled at a post-secondary institution.

I largely attribute the blame for students’ inability to construct grammatically correct essays to computer programs such as MS Word, with their spell-check and auto-correct functions. I mean, how can one ever learn that his/her way with words is incorrect if an electronic application can/does do all the work for him/her? But, even then (and as much as society would love to promote technology as the solution to all of life’s quibbles), such programs are never foolproof (ie: they often miss subtle grammatical errors such as when it’s appropriate to use their, there, or they’re)

3) Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!

Though your profs have likely been instructing you to do so for years, I’m sure there are several of you who fail to give your work a once over, after your inkjet has spewed out the pages. While editing throughout the process of working on assignments is an absolute must, I can tell you from personal experience that you will not catch the most glaring of errors until, quite literally, you read aloud a hardcopy of your report to yourself, your imaginary friend, and/or someone who is frankly “lucky” enough to be exposed to your genius.

In all seriousness though, the act of proofreading is a much neglected practice that not only affects scholarly tasks detrimentally when poorly executed, but as well, can create serious rifts in your personal life (resulting from miscommunication), that could have been entirely avoided had you bothered to take those few extra seconds to ensure that what you’ve written is what you actually want to say. In two words: slow down!

The instantaneous nature of the net, and personal devices like Blackberrys, has gotten us all caught up in a world that is constantly on the move. While you can always take back the words themselves, remember that the emotions the recipient(s) of your poorly and/or inappropriately worded messages experienced aren’t erasable, to the same extent. For that reason, if you have something truly important to express I suggest either a) doing it in person or b) composing a letter via pen and paper (yes, I know it seems so passé, but I assure you being penpals, at one point, was all the rage!)

For those of you courageous enough to take the next leap with your lexicon expansion and authorship endeavours, I suggest purchasing yourselves a nice hand-crafted silver-tipped quill and inkwell; the art of calligraphy is good fun. One final thing, do yourselves (and your English profs!) all a favour: learn the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Oh yeah, and a true student of the English language is well aware that the age of “Old English” did in fact NOT correspond with Shakespeare’s life and times.

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