The Lamentable State of the English Language
ON THE SAD IMPOVERISHMENT AND THE THREATENED DEMISE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
I was recently poking around a website I sometimes visit, and came across a thread in which members were complaining about authors who seem to do their writing with a dictionary or a thesaurus in hand. They started out (quite properly, I thought) discussing authors who sprinkle in words they apparently don’t understand themselves, words that jar, that don’t match the tone of the rest of the story. I won’t mention the names of the specific authors, because I’m not familiar with their work, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment; let’s just say that I approve of the general principle. But then the conversation turned to one of our more literate and respected SFF authors and his use of two particular words that were unfamiliar to one of the people taking part in the discussion.
Now it happened that I knew both words, so perhaps I was prejudiced in the author’s favor, but in each case it seemed to be that he had chosen the precise right word to convey everything he meant to say. Each word came with a wealth of interesting associations that would never be conveyed by the more general term. And if the reader doesn’t know one of those words … is it really too much work to open up a dictionary and look something up, every once and a while? It seems absurd to me that authors should be expected to choose less expressive and specific language out of fear that someone somewhere might not understand it. Yet it appears that this is the way we are heading.
I also bewail the fact that it apparently isn’t enough that the English in everyday use is becoming blander and blander, and less and less precise, but that writers (the very people who should be cherishing the language and making good use of its richness and variety) are expected to abet the ongoing impoverishment of our vocabulary, and God forbid that any one of us should challenge the reader with the occasional unfamiliar word!
Now I find this appalling. I also find it distressing, irksome, offensive, and altogether odious. All of these words describe my feelings, but none of them describe exactly the same one, although you may find some of them under the same heading in your thesaurus. There are shades of meaning in most of our English words — the ones that haven’t already been drained of all their force and color to the point where they’ve become practically useless — and while some of those differences are subtle, others are highly significant, and if we allow ourselves to lose those lovely gradations of meaning, our language will become a dull and listless thing. But even more than that: Clarity will suffer instead of being enhanced. It will be like putting aside a glorious selection of colors in favor of a palette of dingy greys, difficult to distinguish one from the other. If we don’t ultimately die of boredom, it’s possible that the English language will.
And shouldn’t those of us who are avid readers, writers, and aspiring writers — and more particularly, readers and writers of the fantastic — be resisting this trend, rather than participating in and encouraging it?
I have said elsewhere — and I have said it often enough that people may be tired of hearing me say it — that a writer should not use words in writing that he or she would not use in conversation. But this is simply to say that we should use words that we ourselves feel at home with, words that we use easily and naturally, not that we should limit ourselves to only those words we can be sure that every reader will understand, not even that we should limit ourselves to words that we do use in conversation. I mean that we should seek out good books, expose ourselves to the works of writers who inspire us with their masterly use of the language, absorb and internalize the very best that the language has to offer, so that rather than limiting our working vocabularies we will expand them. One doesn’t gain a wide and flexible vocabulary by thumbing through a dictionary or a thesaurus (although I’m all for consulting these useful resources in their proper time and place), one achieves it by seeing words used in their proper context.
We are the ones who can keep the language vital and exciting. We can provide the inspiration and the context for readers and writers now and in the future. Whether we’ve asked for the job or not, we have a place among the stewards of our shared linguistic heritage; what it will be to future generations is partly up to us. Will we pass on something expressive and moving, lively and witty, terrifying and invigorating — or a drab handful of words that have lost whatever vitality they once had?
I welcome your thoughts.
TERESA EDGERTON is a freelance developmental editor, providing critiques and evaluations of unpublished manuscripts, and helping new writers to expand and develop their writing skills. If you would like to learn more about the services she provides, you may send her an email at email@example.com
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