Thursday, 25 May 2017

W is for WORDS

                'He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not
                 Be noble to myself'
                                            - Antony and Cleopatra, V, ii, 192-3

In Shakespeare's play the queen has been listening to the empty promises of Caesar. She is not taken in by them and thus expresses her contempt. We are all familiar with the ways politicians play with words, using them to convey lies, half-truths, evasion and misinformation, investing them with emotional overload. We are aware of the slippery use of 'weasel words'. We know what they are doing, though not enough of us, like Cleopatra, call their bluff. It's not only politicians who abuse language. Advertisers study the psychology of words, so that they can select the ones which will evoke favourable responses in those who read or hear them. Academics use 'in' words to impress their peers (e.g. 'metanarative' instead of 'big story'). Writers of instruction manuals for our ever-more-complicated electrical devices seem incapable of writing an English sentence uncluttered with jargon, acronyms and symbols. And as for social media afficianados ... well, I won't go on. The point I want to make is that one of our tasks as writers is to preserve, protect, cherish and glory in that galaxy of glittering objects that provide our bread and butter - words.

Those of us whose natural tongue is English are the privileged guardians of the richest and most expressive written language in the world. We must protect it. From change? No, heaven forfend! Language evolves, and quite rightly so. But it should become richer for change and not poorer. For example, what is happening to the word 'persuade'? It is being barged out of the vocabulary by 'convince'. Now, the two words are not synonymous. You might persuade someone to do something without convincing him/her that it's a good idea. And there's another thing: political correctness has made us so gender sensitive that it is becoming commonplace to abandon grammar altogether. You would not be surprised nowadays to come across such a sentence as: 'Every member of the team has their special responsibility'. Yuk!

How can we buck this appalling debasing of our beloved English? It goes without saying that we should acquire, principally through our reading, as large a vocabulary as we can so that our writing will be as nuanced as possible; so that we can express our meaning with the finest degree of precision. This may not always be appreciated, as I discovered when a reviewer hauled me over the coals for using the word 'fissiparous'. In the context of what I was describing it meant precisely what I was trying to convey (i.e. 'having a tendency to fragment') but it was not a word he was familiar with and he accused me of making it up. Not that I would be offended at being accused of verbal innovation. There's nothing wrong in occasionally, being playful with our language. Shakespeare was a splendid maker-upper of words. In the quote above he takes that very noun 'words' and makes it powerfully a verb. We can almost see the sneer on Cleopatra's lip - 'He words me, girls'. Speaking, I find, can be a real help in finding the right combination of words. if I'm having difficulty with a passage, I say it aloud. Does it flow off the tongue or judder? Is the sentence too long? Is the paragraph overloaded? Do the chosen words convey mood as well as meaning?

We're not jailers of the language but we are guardians. We should be trying to keep its feet on the right path. If we don't, no-one else will. We're not pedagogues, either. We are not here to teach our readers how to write. And yet, in a sense we are. Just as our use of language has been shaped by all the authors we have read, so we are, unconsciously, influencing those who read our books, imparting to them our love of words. At least, I hope so.

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