Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Defense of Language

I wrote a lot of bad poetry in college.  As part of this literary rite of passage, I went to a handful of poetry readings hosted by the English department, and at one of these, during the question-and-answer period, the poet on deck said the following when asked what advice he had for aspiring poets:  “Just sit down see and what you can do with the language.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t really grasped what language is.  A lifetime of schooling didn’t teach me that language isn’t just a set of vocabulary and usage rules:  It’s both tool-kit and rule-book, enabling and constraining, frustratingly insufficient and transcendently beautiful.  We struggle to express ourselves within its framework, but it never stays still.  It mutates constantly, and even words we thought we knew shift in meaning with every new reader and every fresh reading.

The more I use language for everything from text messages to novels, the more I’m struck by what a miraculous and versatile thing it is.  Which is why I’ve been dismayed by a few conversations I’ve been reading on a handful of popular blog posts discussing the quality of certain books.  There’s a recurring theme that it “shouldn’t matter” if a writer uses proper grammar or makes good decisions about words as long as “the story is good.” 

I understand the premise that in a novel, it’s the story that matters.  And if a bunch of misplaced modifiers and faulty parallelisms bug me, I don’t have to read it.  The trouble is, the misuse of language doesn’t just screw up a single story.  It has a reflexive effect on language itself.  A writer who uses words carelessly chips away at the integrity of our man-made, culturally negotiated system of expression, and that definitely, absolutely matters.

All of us who use language have the power to change it.  If enough of us adopt new slang or use new rules, those elements will be assimilated.  I love this about language.  I love that we can create new words and expressions that convey emotion and meaning (“jump the shark,” the verbification of “Google”).  But a writer is not just a consumer of language.  A writer is a caretaker.  A text to my mom about my new pair of black suede slouch boots (OMG so CUTE u gotta c them!) doesn’t have nearly as much power as a book meant to be read by the public.  People are gonna read that story, and it’s going to influence them, however subtly and imperceptibly.  Using words carelessly is like leaving soda cans on the ground at Yosemite.  It’s offensive when everyday visitors do it.  When the park rangers do it, it’s destructive.

Misusing language blurs the boundaries and crushes the nuances we could have used to do something interesting and fresh.  A new word creates a sharp, startling, useful new image (unibrow, agritourism), but a misused word just gets conflated with other words.  Take my (admittedly nit-picky) pet peeve: comprise.  Many folks use “comprise” just like they use “compose,” when in fact its meaning is closer to “embrace” or “enclose.”  To borrow Strunk & White’s illustration from The Elements of Style: a zoo comprises animals; it is not comprised of animals.  I see “comprise” misapplied so often, I think it’s probably already lost.  Just one more precision tool turned into a blunt object.

God knows I’ve been guilty of some pretty appalling abuses of language (see above: bad poetry), but I try to treat it like the commonly held commodity it is.  I don’t think that means we can’t take liberties to get our points across.  Taking risks, breaking rules, trying new things—that’s part of how language evolves, and that’s a good thing.  It’s great that language can change to accommodate the pressures applied to it by culture.  It just shouldn’t change because we’re too lazy or careless to use it well.


  1. This post is brilliant, and I don't say that lightly. (Ha.) I've never thought of writers as being caretakers of language, but you're right. And I don't think it's hyperbole for you to say so, either.

    This makes me glad I am taking my good old time to put out a book that is accessible but intentional, full of thought. A book that people could understand a hundred years ago (minus the mention of cell phones) and people will understand a hundred years from now. At least I hope so.

  2. Thank you! :) And I've read your excerpts. Not a word out of place. "Accessible but intentional": I love that. A good goal for many of us, I think

  3. Interesting post A.J. Although I understand where you're coming from, I think if we view language as a living, growing thing where new words are added, we also have to understand that the use of other words might change.

    It always drives me crazy when I see "alot" instead of "a lot" ... but I also know that in a hundred years, no one will spell it as 2 separate words. But that's okay, that's evolution ... the word will change. I guess I don't see it as laziness so much, as just the way it naturally evolves.

    But I can see where it becomes difficult to determine where the line between naturally evolving (comprise) ends and just being lazy begins ... like I said ... interesting post! Lots to think about ...

  4. Hi Nikki, I think you make a good point. If language is going to evolve (and it should), we have to tolerate a certain amount of instability. It's probably a good thing not everyone is as anal-retentive as I am...we'd still be speaking like Chaucer. ;) I guess what I struggle with is this: Which changes are helping us gain functionality and precision (new words, verbifications), which are neutral and inevitable (a lot --> alot, all right --> alright, the regularization of verbs), and which blunt the precision of our language? It's the latter that I have trouble with. But perhaps if we're going to have the first two, we have to have the third one as well, and that's just the way things work. As you say, it's not so much laziness as a natural "relaxation" of language. Lots for me to think about, too :)

    By the way, have you seen The Alot is Better Than You at Everything on Hyperbole and a Half? I go back and read it when I'm feeling extra-twitchy about this stuff.