Speak and Spell

I’m presently hosting cousins who are in town visiting, and we attended the evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  I confess that I usually tune out during church readings and sermons—really, when anyone has been talking too long—and it’s that much harder to keep focus when my eye has a massive dome and intricate mosaics, sculptures, and paintings to wander about.  A surreal kind of solitude even in a room filled with people.

In any case, because I’m visual and we had a program containing the readings and songs, I did catch this passage:

“If [the flute or the harp] do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played?  And if the bugle give an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?  So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?  For you will be speaking into the air.  There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound.  If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.”  – from 1 Corinthians 14

Now, the context of this passage regards speaking in “tongues”—i.e., spreading God’s message in different languages that people may not understand without interpretation.  Yet it got me thinking about language in general and the way people communicate with each other even within the same language that they all understand.  This transports me back to the first days of school explaining to students why taking an English class is necessary—not as in learning the language itself, but, rather, learning all the possibilities of how to use that language.  I told them that they could have the most brilliant ideas in the world, but it won’t mean anything if they can’t communicate them clearly.

For students, the technical ways to communicate are the starting point.  [DISCLAIMER:  My criticism is limited to those who butcher their first language only.  My hats off to those who speak another language at any level, as it’s more than I’ve achieved.]

I could go on and on about how many times I caught text-message-ease infiltrating formal essays (yes, “u” instead of “you” appeared countless times) and how proof-reading is a lost art thanks to Spell-Check being taken for granted (need I mention the infamous “there”/”their”/”they’re” problem)?  Maybe I’m just a stickler—after all, I’m not immune to such errors when I’m writing quickly, and naturally leave it to a teenage wisenheimer to bring to my attention the Cambridge study on spelling—but it becomes increasingly alarming to me when I catch more and more typos on menus, signs, and other messages in print.  I don’t know if any of you WordPress users had the same issue, but I couldn’t get into my blog the other day because “Writes to access this site have been disabled.”  Really?

But this isn’t what I mean to harp on (and I don’t want everyone whose stuff I read to fear my teacher’s red pen :)), so I digress…

What I really want to address relates at least in part to Cities of Mind‘s comment on my earlier post:

“I decided that maybe what you do is write the book you want to write, in a way people want to read it.”

This lingered in my mind, and, while the ways in which people want to read a story may encompass several factors (e.g., engaging through suspense or pacing), I thought about how important a story’s overall readability is in the first place—i.e., the ease with which readers can comprehend what is written without having to read through a sentence three times before understanding what it’s getting at.   This ended up echoed in my own sister’s words during her recent local TV interview (which I had to see on her blog before that modest little stinker even showed it to me!).  Starting out in that oh-so soulful world of Finance like myself, when asked how she shifted gears from “boring” financial writing to creative writing, she responded that the former actually helped:

“One thing that was always pounded into me was, ‘This needs to be understandable to the clients,’ so [business writing helped me] for getting the message across and understandable to the reader.  So as far as the passion and the creativity of the story, that part was kind of easy to just have, but to get it written down so that someone else would read it and feel and see the characters the same way that I wanted them to, [I go through a lot of editing] to just think of it from the reader’s point of view.”

I suppose that’s mostly what the “rules” are all about, ensuring that the vivid images and concepts in our minds are translated into words that recreate the thoughts in the reader’s own mind.  This is the fundamental principle of communication, whereby the Sender relays a Message to the Receiver.  If the Receiver does not understand the Message, the Sender has failed to communicate effectively.  And, as Cities of the Mind puts it, we should relay our messages in a way the reader would best welcome them.

The English language is extremely word-rich, so we must take advantage of its possibilities, appreciate the options for syntax and structure, the varying degrees of meaning conveyed by carefully choosing among synonyms like “pretty,” “beautiful,” and “gorgeous,” and not speak into the air in haughtily intellectual or overly abstract ways (mind you, this does not mean dumbing it down either).  A story is meant to be shared, so keep it clear, keep it accessible, and—just as importantly—keep it honest.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity” – George Orwell


About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

15 responses to “Speak and Spell

  • Agatha82

    Another great post my monkey friend 🙂 First of all, how cool you went to St Paul’s Cathedral, something I’ve always wanted to do just for the history of it. I’m in love with the English language, it is beautiful and so rich and varied. Believe it or not, I am not a native speaker of it, I have an English passport but I was born in South America, so my first tongue was Spanish. A language I never “got” – As soon as had English to add to my language skills, it soon became THE language for me. Now, I speak better English whilst my Spanish is that of a 5 year old and this may sound sad to others but English is my love and will always be. Nothing beats communicating in it, it’s the only language that allows me to fully express my thoughts and I have to say a big THANK YOU for writing this post today, because I had forgotten how much I love the actual language and that makes me think about communication and why I am still writing in spite of all my struggles with the frustration of it.

    • Agatha82

      oh and I typed that too quickly, without re-reading it…grrr (oops so much for GOOD communication) so I meant “As soon as I had English” 🙂

    • thefallenmonkey

      Oh, what a nice tribute you’ve given to the English language! Being that it’s my first language, I admittedly took it for granted for a long time, and it wasn’t really until I started taking literature classes for my teaching certification that I came to truly recognize how many words it contains with subtle variations in meaning that are not necessarily to be found in other languages. I remember a Slovakian lady who used to work in my office last year telling me about how she preferred writing in English because she couldn’t express her emotions adequately in her native tongue. So I have new appreciation (although we still don’t have nearly as many words for snow as the Eskimos :)). I am beyond impressed with your handle on the language and find it fascinating that you’re originally from South America! I’ve only been to the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile, but that’s a continent I really want to explore more of. I’m sure your Spanish is still infinitely better than my French from only 3.5 years of study in high school 🙂

      The service at St. Paul’s was really lovely and a perfect opportunity for my cousins to enjoy its interior for free. It’s nice to tour around anyway, but the music and prayer elevates the experience in that it’s what the structure was built for–that was my first time attending. Astounding to think that a church has always stood on that site for a millenium and a half!

  • Lua

    I used to mock my father about the way he spoke English- I told him I could speak much better that he did, the snobbish girl that I was 🙂 One day he told me that “it doesn’t matter how good you speak, as long as the person you’re speaking to doesn’t understand you, you might as well speak Chinese.”
    I think he had a point. I enjoy clear, pure, simple language. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dickens, Bronte and Austen but there is something about those stories who had their share of simplicity.
    “so keep it clear, keep it accessible, and—just as importantly—keep it honest.”

    • thefallenmonkey

      Your father makes a very good point—how cute that you used to rub it in :). I’m just in awe how you’ve mastered the language; anyone who speaks another language has such a gift (quoth the insulated, monolinguistic American ;)). I have a less-than-working knowledge of French from high school, and anything I did learn I always read much better than I could ever speak it.

      And yeah, I know what you mean about Dickens, Bronte, and Austen. I find myself often aspiring to do what they do, and my wordy way of communicating naturally gravitates to complex sentences anyway, but I’ve had to make a point of going back and simplifying them more. Not all of them, though, as the variation between simple and complex is important to the rhythm of your writing and helps avoid dumbing it down too much and catering to everyone’s ADD :). When writing gets too bare and crisp, it can sound a bit choppy and juvenile. I (as I’m sure you do as well based on your fave authors!) personally like to be challenged to think about what I read, so there’s a place for complex writing/ideas as long as it doesn’t try to get overly high-brow, or the total opposite—the writer’s mastery of the language is so poor that the structure is convoluted and the word choices not suitable. In any case, whenever I start to feel like a simpleton in comparison to the ‘greats’, I remind myself that those classic authors wrote during a time when people did speak more properly/sophisticatedly on average than our modern selves who love to abbreviate everything :).

  • Ollin

    What a wonderful rumination on language and our ability to communicate. COTM made a great point. Even if we do want to write the stories we love, we still need to make sure we deliver it in a way that our audience will accept. For me this means using less ornate language and sometimes just getting straight to the point instead of making things sound pretty. But the truth is you can write a really great, even poetic sentence without using complicated syntax, elevated language, or advanced vocabulary. Lorraine Hansberry and Suzan Lori-Parks offer great examples of how very simple, colloquial speech can be very deep, meaningful, and very beautiful at the same time. Great post!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thank you for those references. I absolutely agree. Clarity does not have to mean simplicity in a catering-to-the-lowest-denominator sense by any means. It would be a shame for the poetry of language to be lost, especially since figurative language is often what helps clarify meaning through its imagery/comparisons. Thanks for the insights, Ollin!

  • sharmon

    Just dropped by out of curiosity and it was a treat. Love your whole original monkey theme:-).
    Had to comment on our blessed English language. Ever seen the BBC documentary on how we got the language and why it’s so rich? It used to come on Sunday mornings and I would listen while I cooked dinner before church. I could watch it every day…
    “I decided that maybe what you do is write the book you want to write in the way people want to read it”–is this quote original to you? I loved it and may put it on my corkboard. I may even quote you in a blog post when my site is up and running (please, soon)–and would like to give you credit. There is so much truth in that. You can write the most meaningful, compelling (to you) novel on the planet and if it’s couched in the “wrong tongue” it will fall flat and will not be read.
    Thanks, I’m glad I dropped by.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Well, I’m so glad you dropped by, too! Thank you so much for such thoughtful feedback. I never did see that BBC documentary, but sounds like something I’d enjoy a great deal.

      I unfortunately can’t take credit for that particular quotation, but I’m sure its author would be thrilled for the reference – Cities of the Mind had said that in a comment left on one of my previous posts. A brilliant blogger to also check out.

      In the meantime, I look so forward to your new blog—I hope it’s up and running soon. Be sure to give me the heads-up so I can swing by from my tree 🙂

  • sharmon

    Thanks for the referral to Cities of the Mind. I made myself a note.
    You are one of the few (only?) writer I’ve come across who quotes Bonni Goldberg rather than Natalie Goldberg. I finally read “Writing Down the Bones” and it was a huge disappointment.
    I did like “Room To Write”, but my favorite is “Beyond the Words”. Have you read that one by Bonni G.? She was the first one that helped me see revision and the business part of writing in a whole new light. It helped me go from a writer who loathed rewriting to being a writer who embraces and maybe even loves it. Okay, maybe not. But at least I realize its value and do get pleasure from it on occasion :-).

    • thefallenmonkey

      Sending a hearty thanks back to you as well for the tip on “Beyond the Words”! I haven’t read that, but it seems I must if it took you in such a positive direction. You’ll see in my blog that I quote a lot of Bonni 🙂 When I don’t generally muse on writing, I fall back on her writing prompts to keep me in the groove. Not the most original thing I could do, but it keeps me more consistent. I’m so glad to have “met” you and look forward to further writing advice from you!

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