Writing with Precise Language: Why it Matters

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.

Traditions: Peering Through the Lens of Nostalgia

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There are a couple of late November moments that fill me with so much nostalgia and sentimentality I get chills. One is hearing the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Miniature Overture to The Nutcracker for the first time in the long Nut season. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a fan of the ballet, nor the score, with the exception a couple of noteworthy moments (Act I Scene II’s Snow pas de deux, and the chorus which happens later in the same, and possibly Act II’s Mother Ginger variation, which makes me want to jump up and dance).

But for years my mom and I danced together in Memphis Ballet’s Nutcracker, and there are so many, many intense memories inextricably bound up in that galvanizing experience it is impossible not to be nostalgic about it, to wit: the year I was feverish with flu and sipped Sprite backstage to try not to vomit on my wool felt costume; the morning mom and I were on our way to the theatre in downtown Memphis to dance in one of many performances mounted for the Memphis City Schools, delayed by an impossibly long train at a railroad crossing, arriving at the theater just in the nick of time; the red circles painted on my cheeks when I was a soldier in Act I that took days to finally fade; my dad’s irritation with the company’s Soviet-style Russian director who possessed not one smidgen of shame about scheduling late-night rehearsals for young children with even younger siblings in tow; but also the pantheon of Really Famous principals and soloists Mr. Balanchine routinely sent down to us from New York City Ballet each year because of the same Russian director’s connections with him; and on, and on, and on.

Call it total Nutcracker immersion: it stakes its claim to you, heart and soul, and there is no escaping that for the rest of your life.

The other thing to give me chills happens on Thanksgiving morning and goes like this: Five, Four, Three, Two, One—Let’s have a parade!

It surely does the same to many thousands of others, too. What I recall about that annual moment in bygone years was special time with my dad, who made sure I was in front of the telly with hot cocoa in hand to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a family tradition I introduced to my own young child when I became a parent.

Life sometimes gets in the way of traditions. I know mom was there some Thanksgiving mornings for the parade, too, almost certainly. But I also remember at least one Thanksgiving when we were already in the theatre in rehearsals for Nut by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. We probably watched the parade in the morning, but there was no traditional Thanksgiving dinner that year because of hours spent later in the day and into the evening at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis.

The first two years I lived in Vermont I did not have cable and therefore did not have the chance to see the parade at all. Last year I was at Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s on Thanksgiving morning, but as fate would have it, high winds that ripped through the Berkshires the night before took out the cable signal. No parade.

But this year! This year, I turned it on and watched the first hour of it while HCB finalized preparations of the mountains of food we would soon pack into the car before heading to his mom’s. I got the requisite chills, as always. And dad and I had already exchanged texts to make sure each of us was poised to watch it.

My own son, on the other hand, thought better of it and decided to sleep in. So much for continuing a cherished family tradition.

Really, there is not much to cherish anymore about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Decades ago it had already given itself over to the far-reaching “commercialism” that now defines the holiday season, bumper to bumper. Christmas starts before Halloween, big box stores begin to trumpet their door-busting sales soon thereafter, and every place you go, it seems, starts piping in Christmas music at about the same time.

The truth is, I no longer really care much about the parade, particularly since adverts began disrupting the flow of things many, many years ago. I do love the very beginning moments of it, in the same way I love the Miniature Overture. I love seeing the excitement on the faces of the littles in the crowd. I will always love the excerpts from Broadway shows, even if the casts lip-sync them. (And I must say the opening of this year’s parade in particular was brilliant, with the Latin beat of the new Gloria Estefan-themed show On Your Feet! engaging everybody in the crowd, including some of the other performers. If that did not make you want to jump up and dance, then there is absolutely no hope for you.)

The rest I can (mainly) do without. More and more these days I do not even recognize the names of the featured performers. And busy Thanksgiving Day plans seem always to tear me away from enjoying the high school marching bands, all those pimply uniformed kids who doubtless are so excited to visit the Big Apple, even if they are in their “prime suffering years,” as Frank’s character insisted in Little Miss Sunshine.

Once I even suggested to my Uncle Stan, who lived most of his adult life in neighboring Queens, that I come for a visit and we go see the parade. Ever the sarcastic queen himself, he waved it off and said, Save your money: you’ll spend your entire morning shivering while you stare into a horse’s ass—literally. I always loved that peremptory honesty about my Uncle Stan, as much as I loved him.

In the end, it is not the traditions, it seems, but the memories that the shadows of those traditions somehow evoke, year after year. Roles change and life does indeed insinuate itself in the best of our intentions.

Advent is a big tradition that begins today on the liturgical calendar, and is observed right up to Christmas. The word itself means “coming;” for me, it was once all about anticipation, expectation, and preparation, back when I was still a practicing Episcopalian. It is a tradition that nowadays is mainly trampled in our eagerness to bust down the doors for holiday sales while we shop along to the strains of popular Christmas carols.

But there is also a tradition of beautiful Advent hymnody, at least in the Episcopal church, whence comes my sensibilities about such things. 2015 has felt rushed, Thanksgiving felt rushed, holiday shopping will also feel rushed, and probably some of my gifts will reach loved ones a little late. This year I plan to gift myself a bit of Advent reflection in the face of Nutcrackers and Santas, and the strains of Christmas carols that began before Halloween. I treasure the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing A Charlie Brown Christmas as much as the next guy; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it makes me wistful. It is still too soon, even for that bit of nostalgia.

I leave you to enjoy this lush, contemporary instrumental version of my favorite Advent hymn, whatever your faith tradition. Its ancient opening words—O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel—seem so timely, and nostalgic.