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So I’ve been accused of being a bit of a rules-Nazi when it comes to the English language. Maybe I had a disadvantaged childhood, and the comfort of grammar’s boundaries gave me what was lacking in my home-life. Maybe it’s because the English department that taught me had a draconian policy…

Or maybe I’m just a rules-Nazi because I like it.

Regardless, I usually try not to let it get the best of me; and I work to evaluate a piece beyond the boundaries of its grammatical strength. I do enjoy individual styles, and when people make intelligent use of the language. I also enjoy when people break the rules, but in an intelligent and thoughtful way, with a specific purpose in mind.

A perfect example of this is dialogue that emulates speech, such as “I reckon that there feller dun got himself in trouble Jed!” Not exactly the most beautiful prose, but perfectly acceptable because it’s mirroring the unique speech pattern of the character.

So where’s the rant? I’m going to step outside my usual stance, and defend a topic that you’d think seems out of place with my above statements. I think that a lot of artists are too busy trying to be “artsy” with their work. There’s a significant difference between trying to communicate concepts in a metaphorical, abstract manner, and trying to use language to confuse and convey a smug sense of superiority over your audience.

Nothing bothers me more than someone trying to prove their literary superiority over another by the obscure use of language devices and vocabulary.

I’m a true believer in writing being accessible to the masses. Maybe that’s why I love structure so much; because if we adhere to specific rules anyone learning that set of rules can communicate with us, and hopefully convey the message effectively. That’s almost off topic for the rant though.

To quote Joseph Devlin, from the preface of his book “How to Write and Speak Correctly”:

“There are upwards of 200,000 words in the recent editions of the large dictionaries, but the one-hundredth part of this number will suffice for all your wants. Of course you may think not, and you may not be content to call things by their common names; you may be ambitious to show superiority over others and display your learning or, rather, your pedantry and lack of learning.

For instance, you may not want to call a spade a spade. You may prefer to call it a spatulous device for abrading the surface of the soil. Better, however, to stick to the old familiar, simple name that your grandfather called it. It has stood the test of time, and old friends are always good friends.

To use a big word or a foreign word when a small one and a familiar one will answer the same purpose, is a sign of ignorance. Great scholars and writers and polite speakers use simple words.

To go back to the number necessary for all purposes of conversation correspondence and writing, 2,000, we find that a great many people who pass in society as being polished, refined and educated use less, for they know less. The greatest scholar alive hasn't more than four thousand different words at his command, and he never has occasion to use half the number.”

Sorry for the fairly lengthy passage, but it needed to be intact for full effect.

I completely believe in the right tool for the right job. Some writing will call for an academic, complicated style. In those situations, you’re dealing with colleagues with a comparable vocabulary and writing ability.

But as writers, the majority of our communication will be with people that communicate on a level far below what we’re capable of, in both style and vocabulary. If the goal of your writing is to effectively convey a message, an emotion, or anything other than your own superiority, you should really participate in some audience analysis, and recognize their particular needs and limitations.

I’ve seen too many pieces, with the goal to persuade or at least intrigue, fail because they didn’t speak effectively to the target audience. The points were arranged logically, could have been quite persuasive, but were not written in a style or form that the audience would understand.

***By no means is this example intended to start a political debate. If you want to start one please take it to the forums, or your own separate post.***

Bush vs. Kerry is a perfect example of this theory in practice. Bush is wildly successful because he can relate to the common man, his target audience. He doesn’t always say what everyone would want to hear, but most everything he says is delivered in a manner accessible to everyone.

A big problem with Kerry’s campaign wasn’t that he was a waffler who didn’t stand for specific ideals, but that he couldn’t effectively convey his position in a way that was comprehendible by the masses. Check out which states he lost in; a significant amount of them can be labeled as very plain talking, straightforward people, who would resonate better with Bush’s style of communicating than Kerry’s.

So apply this principle to your own writing. Not every audience will require you to write to the lowest common denominator, but you should determine what that denominator is for your audience range, and ensure what you’re writing is accessible to them. Otherwise, you’re just dooming your piece to failure before it’s even out the door.

Signatures are lame. Oops!


The following comments are for "That's right, Capulet wrote a rant."
by Capulet

Bravo! This is great and needs to be said, taught, and remembered. This is the best rant I've ever seen Capulet. William F. Buckley probably won't read it though. lol He is a hero of mine, but I can't keep up with him. Again,Bravo!


( Posted by: williamhill [Member] On: November 7, 2004 )

I cannot say I totally agree with some of your methodology and conclusions, but this is a very well written piece.

Personally, I don't tend to write with an audience in mind, I do it for my own fantasies and kind of therapy.

I remember at school, people who had a regional dialect or pronounciation, did not get very good marks on English, I thought that this was very unfair as language by it's own nature has varying rules. If I was to be a puritan about it I would say that all Americans are incorrect as they speak a perverted version of true English.

I agree a little about 'artsy' work, art for art's sake is quite an old philosophy and was started in France when there were no aristocratic patrons ordering fine art works anymore, it happened to survive, but fine art was never for the masses. In fact Andy Warhol regularly satyred 'mass' art, and guess what, everyone bought it. The irony was not seen.

My argument would be that if you try and write for a target audience that perhaps would not get the 'arty' side of it, critical analysis of the work would be pointless.

Yet it is funny how the Paris Art Elite did not understand 'Waiting for Godot', and a bunch of prisoners did. I think people understand abstract a bit more than you are giving them credit for.

Alex :-P

( Posted by: londongrey [Member] On: November 8, 2004 )

Mea Culpa! or is that
I must confess to frequent use of obscure words, but with no intent of sounding all high-falutin' or citified. In most cases it's intended as a tone of self-mocking tongue-in-cheek grandiosity. Often it's simply because I truly enjoy using a new word, and on rare occaisions even creating one. Sometimes it's merely for alliterative purposes.

Your point regarding consideration of the intended audience is a valid one, however I cannot bring myself to re-examine my political opinion posts at this time because I'll just get started all over again.

I also tend to be a stickler for proper usage, although I choose politely silent suffering in most cases.

Nice piece!It's too reasonable and polite to call a rant, merely a justifiable opinion.

( Posted by: drsoos [Member] On: November 8, 2004 )

Interesting rant, though I would restrict the scope of your advice to certain sorts of writing. If you want the masses to understand you, then by all means make sure they aren't left out in the cold. But quite often I don't want the masses to understand because the masses are idiots and I want nothing to do with them. Tee-hee.

One crit: "comprehendible" isn't a word. Instead of "comprehendible to," "comprehensible by" might have worked better. No worries.

( Posted by: Viper9 [Member] On: November 8, 2004 )

Ich bin eine ninkompoop



( Posted by: drsoos [Member] On: November 11, 2004 )

Right on!
I have to agree with most of this (though maybe not the Bush/Kerry angle - there's a difference between seeming intelligent and using words that no-ones going to understand). I continue to be constantly frustrated by poetry that uses words that aren't necessary, that are used for the sake of using the words. It's like the contemporary poets are trying to find the most obscure words possible so that no-one can read it without looking in a dictionary. I ask, what's the point?

A well-written rant too. Look forward to some more grammar-based ranting.

( Posted by: False Dawn [Member] On: November 11, 2004 )

A Love of Language
I think you've brought up some very interesting points, here, Capulet.

I was somewhat thrown by your quote, however. I wonder if there wasn't some absurdism in it? The notion that the most intelligent person in the land (who is that I wonder?) has 4,000 words at his command and only uses half of them strikes me as a rather bizarre figure. The average American uses a vocabulary of roughly 500 words, so even a used vocabulary of 2,000 would by necessity include some fairly obscure gems.

There is, of course, a counterpoint to your argument. My mother, who is a shool teacher, and I had a conversation some months back. She was telling me how frustrated she was with trying to get her students to learn their vocabulary lists for class. She said she hadn't come up with a pat response as to why learning more specific terminology was necessary. I said "Well, that's easy -- because trying to squeeze big ideas through a small handful of words is like trying to squeeze a watermelon through a drinking straw."

I thoroughly agree that within the world of art it is incredibly easy to fall into behaviour patterns resembling a superiority complex and that, often enough, it is more helpful to communicate simply and with heart. However, there are subtle differences between words and in order to communicate well it's best to have a broad range from which to choose.

For instance, sanitary, clean and sterilized all mean very similiar things. But to say that one was raised in a sanitary home is a far different thing from saying one was raised in a clean one. And a sterile home life is a completely different thing, all together.

I think the most important aspect of good writing is mindfulness -- a balance of complexity and simplicity. Good writing should broaden a reader's horizons without leaving them with the feeling that they are drowning.

Just a few thoughts.

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: November 12, 2004 )

Hi hi hi

Hey Viper

Comprehendible is an adjective, and can be used in the manner I did. It's a synonym of comprehensible, and used in a slightly different way.

Comprehendible to the masses
Comprehensible by the masses

I agree that sometimes it's no fun writing to the unwashed masses. =) Sometimes you just have to grab their ear though! Still, there is a season for every form of writing, and art for art's sake is still quite popular, and fulfilling.
Hi Hazel

I love the watermelon analogy! I’m going to have to file that one away for some future piece.

I think you’re correct about the quote in regards to the word count in the human vocabulary. I think I mentioned above it was a fairly old text, and that the language (and our mass-education in it) has grown by leaps and bounds. We now have greater access to the language and with it greater access to words.

I’m in complete agreement with you that reductionism is writing has it’s place, and should only go so far. I’m a firm believer in having as large a vocabulary as possible, so that you can select the most appropriate word for your writing. Clarity in writing has always been a chief concern for me, and that can only be accomplished by proper word selection. Sometimes those words could be obscure, or out of the vocabulary of the general layman, and you can’t avoid that; but you should try to minimize it for sure.

As someone suggested, this wouldn’t be a dominating theory for all types of writing, but it should factor in to some degree no matter what form your work takes.

( Posted by: Capulet [Member] On: November 12, 2004 )

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