Precise Language
Precise Language

In my professional life writing and editing copy for a digital marketing agency I read a lot of other copy floating around the ‘net. And while the volume of trendy, quippy, or just plain prosaic writing in the cyber sphere may come as no surprise to many, what surprises and disappoints me is how much of it falls under the mantle of elite publishing houses, a phenomenon that somehow gives it more credence. If you’re thinking I should climb down off my high horse, rest assured I don’t adhere to the philosophy that all published copy should be scrubbed clean of colorful slang or modern conventions, far from it: I find the evolution of the spoken and written word through history fascinating. And of course the intended audience of any piece of writing matters. But our language is a barometer for who we are, after all. And using imprecise language (because it’s easy, it’s recognizable, and everybody’s doing it) is a trend that mirrors the bigger, more disquieting habit of indifference we’ve embraced collectively for a couple of generations now; it reaches into most aspects of our cultural experience as Americans.

I’ll use clothing as an example. When I was a kid I recall my mom dressing for routine doctor appointments. Visiting the doctor was an occasion: she piled her hair into a beautiful French twist, pulled on her stockings under a tailored skirt, and left the house in a pair of pumps and a blazer with a string of pearls around her neck. It’s what you did when you visited a professional in the 1960s; dressing up was a show of respect for a trusted expert who you hoped would in turn deliver sound advice. This relationship was precisely defined, and my mom’s attire—and presumably her doctor’s—helped to clearly demarcate its boundaries.

At five I was to fly across my erstwhile home state of Tennessee alone to visit my grandmother, who would be there to greet me at the gate; I was a little terrified, considerably thrilled. Getting my fancy new travel outfit was as much an occasion as the plane ride itself. Have you seen anybody dressed up on a jetliner lately? How about at the theatre? Many folks still observe at least a modicum of decorum for an 8:00 curtain, but I guarantee you’ll find at least a few who look like they grabbed a rumpled something off the floor for a night out, even in a highfaultin venue. As a former classical ballerina and ballet teacher, I assure you the artists on the stage appreciate the effort you made to come and see them in the first place, but also the show of enthusiasm in your deportment and behavior (read: you dressed to the nines, turned off your devices, and applauded like crazy during the curtain calls).

The clothing metaphor may be a stretch, but you get my drift: indifference, thou hast congealed among us—in our manners, too. For example, when did ‘no problem’ come into common parlance as an acceptable response to ‘thank you?’ It’s what most of us say, but comes across more as a retort than as true politesse. Say I’m nitpicking, but quipping ‘no problem’ after an expression of heartfelt gratitude implies whatever act of grace preceded it might have been a problem, and don’t you forget it. This trend bothered me for years until I finally gave in and assumed there were no strings attached for most—it’s simply what people say anymore: your waiter sets a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta on the table before you and you thank him; no problem, he says. But the rarer ‘you’re welcome,’ still catches me off guard. And to be fair, ‘you’re welcome’ had its own day as a new expression in England in the 1300s, but with distinctly friendlier underpinnings than its modern-day “problematic” replacement.

Which brings me to writing. Every year Lake Superior State University publishes a list of banished words; it’s worth a gander if you’ve never looked. If one could distill useful writing tools to a short list for a newbie, this little gem might top it. And were you to find a common thread among these words and expressions, you could call it banality. (Can’t you hear your prep school English teacher’s echoing admonitions about hackneyed language?) An expression or turn of phrase that no doubt seemed clever and appropriate—even precise—in its original context, is now besmeared across the ether, rolled around, moused over, used to pieces, until it is beaten beyond recognition. It is destined for the waste bin—or at least the laundry, like the rumpled clothing on the floor, only we’re too lazy to pick it up and put it where it belongs: instead we press it into service time and again because, well, everybody’s doing it. Sounds like indifference to me.

But imprecise language can also make you sound stupid. You can call a thing iconic without knowing the word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek for ‘likeness’ and has specific connotations within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and through time has come to mean a standard that represents a larger group, but you’re more likely to misuse it as ‘renowned.’ You can say something was literally the last thing on your mind, when you meant to underscore it was the last thing you were considering on a longer list of thoughts, not that an object called the Last Thing was perched on this other object called My Mind. Or you could say it’s literally raining men, when you meant it figuratively, unless men are actually falling out of the sky like rain. Or you could start a sentence with the expression, ‘there are no words to describe,’ but chances are many perfectly good words can describe whatever thing you were about to name—in this case using imprecise language gets you off the hook and requires exactly zero effort on your part.

One has only to turn to the 2016 presidential campaigns to recognize the ill effects of imprecise language: not only have our candidates set the decorum bar very low in this election (practically scraping the ground), but the candidates themselves, or their speech writers anyway, insist on using the same words and expressions time and again, until they play on continuous loop on our screens, across the airwaves, and in our heads. Speaking only for myself, I’ve stopped listening; time to sweep those words into the waste bin.

Why does precise language matter? Because words have meaning. You can pull on your day-old jeans with the sweatshirt you peeled off before you climbed into bed last night. Or you can open your closet and choose something more refined. Or thumb through the dictionary or thesaurus for the word that means precisely what you meant to say. The path of indifference is well traveled, and expected—and that is one compelling reason not to take it.

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