DISCLAIMER: This rant is not directed at our wonderful followers or their lovely blogs. We love you!
Words mean things. Although the English language is highly malleable-giving us an exceptional amount of leeway in how we use it-there are still basic rules to follow, if you enjoy being taken seriously and don’t want to look like a twit. In my fight against imprecision in language, I’ve adopted the term “words mean things”. It’s short, easy to remember and to the point. I’m not ashamed to shout it at myself whenever I feel my writing is too mealy-mouthed.
I’m in the habit of reading blog posts on my smart phone while still in bed. Call it what you will, but I like to think of it as laziness. There I was, curled up on my side wearing stained yoga pants and yesterday’s work shirt, scanning an otherwise nifty fashion-cum-travel article. How nice, I thought, to start my day whilst reading on two subjects I currently know nothing about! This, I said aloud, is the figurative kick in the ass I need to get out of bed and do something extraordinary. Today will be that day! And then I saw it, sighed, and composed the majority of this article in my head before rolling over and falling back asleep. What set me off?
Just another instance of a writer unwittingly speaking for an entire group of people (in this case, the residents of a large American city), due to an imprecise choice of words. Unless it was put to a vote, and you came out the winner, you are not the representative of an entire demographic of people. (Even then, you need to choose your words carefully, accurately, diplomatically.) Your voice is your own; when you write first-person, creative non-fiction (as many bloggers do) you speak for yourself. Therefore, breaking out words or phrases like everyone/everybody/we all in an effort to back up a point is not a good idea. Not even when you are a part of the group you are writing about. Not even when you have optimistically good intentions. Blanket statements are bad! Bad, bad, bad!
“All of my friends recycle.” “Everyone I know loves puppies.” “All women love chocolate.”
I love playing the replacement game. Let’s try it with the above sentences to see how it works!
“All of my friends wear clown shoes.” “Everyone I know loves dressing up like Darth Vader.” “All women love Hello Kitty maxi pads.”
When you switch your assertion for something absurd, is it believable? Do you still think that you can speak for others, even friends? Again, there’s what you’d like to think:
“All of my friends recycle.” “Everyone I know loves puppies.”
The reality could be something like this:
“Most of my friends recycle. Except for John. He loves to toss syringe-filled plastic bottles into the river.” “Almost everyone I know loves puppies. Except for John. He loves to kick puppies for funsies.”
Unless you have a direct route into someone’s heart and mind-or have, you know, actually interviewed them (and it is damn hard to interview a million or so people)-then you cannot know their real feelings and opinions, much less claim they are identical to your own. Which brings us back to how words mean things. It may seem like a petty point to raise. Maybe I am just a young curmudgeon overly concerned with the idea of saying what we mean and meaning what we say. There’s definitely professional pride to be found in wielding and weaving words into stunning, complex and singular combinations, in the ability to proclaim, “This is my voice.” I’m repeatedly fascinated and awed by the lesser praised qualities of language: its joyousness, mirth and buoyancy. The ability it gives us to be at turns contradictory and simple, dense and bare is truly extraordinary. Its flexibility stuns. Its creative potential is immense. It warms our minds with the light of a thousand and one suns. (Just checking to see if you were paying attention. Another point to remember: Casual use of hyperbole hurts. It hurts us all. Don’t believe me? Just spend a few minutes watching talking heads discuss politics.) Yet, if your goal is buried beneath cloudy language, no matter how pretty, why are you writing at all?
I know what you are thinking! “Lady, you’re not the language police. Just stop. Not everyone notices these things.” (See what I did there? I planted words in your mouth(s) in order to further my narrative. The truth is that I have no idea what you are thinking!) I only have two points to make by writing this piece, either of which you may or may not have gleaned from my ranting.
- It would be oh-so-nice if bloggers and writers as a whole (especially those of us who do this for a living) would be a bit less sloppy with their language. There’s no shame in being a prissy pants where your profession is concerned, even if you are writing on the Internet. Honest. Unless you are trying to kill our already decaying language-in which case, carry on!
- I hate a lot of things in the morning: the smell of coffee, people talking on the radio (shut up already and play some damn music), television talk shows, smiling and, of course, imprecise language. You’re in good company, English slayers. Only one of those other things doesn’t entirely suck.
Words mean things. Now go out and greet the entire world with the blinding glow of your new-found knowledge!