By Shawn Stjean
Ever catch yourself substituting a wrong word for the right one, on purpose? Dumbing your language down? No?
Liar. (As Emerson once opined, sometimes only one word works. Like “Damn.”)
The collapse and convergence or shrinking of our language should be apparent to anyone who’s listening and reading: just observe how the word “way” (original meaning: path) has begun to permanently replace at least three other words in modern English: much, far, very.
“It’s way too easy” / “Mine’s way better”
“We go way back”/ “This happens way too often”
“That skirt’s way cool”
These in addition to its now-standard colloquial uses: “There’s no way I’m going there.” [slang for “possibility”]
We, as a literate culture, have somehow managed to lose our way [ahem.]
No, it isn’t just kids. Watch your own language. Authors and editors of published books and even what’s left of our newspapers have accepted such sentences as correct for twenty years. But there’s something not so obvious here, like a complicating infection from an original illness. And what we do once on purpose–to fit in, to seem up-to-date, for verisimilitude in dialogue, and so on, we repeat out of habit.
It’s all about verbs–weak ones–like the one in this sentence. Go ahead–I’ll wait while you seek it.
You unearthed the problem, apprehended it, discovered it. You found it. Got it. Yeah, my bad.
The verb IS (infinitive “to be” conjugated further as “was,” “were,” “are,” “being,”) lurking underneath those apostrophes and contractions, stands low as the base of a problematic pyramid, but the issue goes very deep, to the base foundations of illiteracy. “To be,” as the weakest verb in our language, gets the most use. It serves slave-duty. Other third-tier infinitives: “To go” “To do.” “To say.” “To see.”
Next come hundreds of second-tier verbs, and even people who read frequently can get mired at this level, for their entire lives. “I see what you mean.” “I get it.” “I said so.” “I went there.”
Crucial point: I remind my students, ad nauseum, that we don’t just desire better sounding verbs–we require more efficient verbs–ones that do more work. “Attempt” may work no better than “try,” depending on context. This advice runs counter to everything they assume–because everybody knows, the longer your essay, and the fancier the vocabulary, the higher the grade, right? (or the more pages in the book, the more money you can charge.)
One-dimensionality needs vigilant guarding against.
Now, among young folks I often like to point to pop culture for my examples, along with occasional pedantic references to Shakespeare and Milton. Pop music functions well–great, thoughtful artists struggle right alongside horribly mediocre ones. Take:
Rush–the band’s name itself is a multi-signifying verb–though it’s also a noun. Like the members themselves, the name works hard. Check them out–and pay attention to the lyrics.
But let’s examine a more current example. As I attended high school sporting events and practices this summer, I heard much motivational music blaring from loudspeakers: here’s a YouTube link for the uninitiated, to the The Script’s excellent video for “Hall of Fame”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk48xRzuNvA
The music video reaches a potential that the song itself does not. As good and catchy and emotionally stirring as this tune featuring will.i.am is, and as genuinely great as it aspires to be, it ironically relies on some of the weakest language available in English. And remember, student-athletes hearing it are absorbed in the act, at that very moment, of pushing themselves to become better.
There’s a certain limited value in the repetition, or parallelism here. And there’s the musical issue–the stanza requires one-syllable verbs. HOWEVER, take a look at what just a little more thought can accomplish:
The revision emphasizes the process of becoming over the state of being, as every kid jock (not all deaf ballerinas or scrawny boxers) in the grind of rehearsal, workout, or practice knows at a gut level–you have to work hard at it. And real students–of life–require more than simple classroom attendance, or book learning. One must venture out and interact with others–listen, try, do, fail, succeed, fail again, try again, work harder. I’d argue that a great deal of resonance has been added by these revisions: rather than substituting meaning, they multiply it.
Third tier verbs function merely as connectors (“Jack was happy.”) Second tier [vague and nondescriptive] verbs communicate the basic idea and no more (“I said it,”) and First tier [the best word for the job] verbs ennoble us: make us think, challenge us, inspire us, reward our effort.
Here’s a better verse from the same song:
You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself
“Way” better. And it so happens that a one-syllable word like “wait” can be the exact, perfect one.
POST-TEST. Some might object that pop music makes an easy target. Fair enough. For you writers out there, here’s another example of how commercial success does not require anything like the higher standards I’ve described above. Tune in on that frequency as you read. Perhaps these opening paragraphs of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could be improved?
It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.
“What is it this year?”
“I don’t know what kind it is. I’ll have to get someone to tell me what it is. It’s white.”
“No letter, I suppose.”
“Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do-it-yourself ones.”
“Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering.”
With that, the subject was exhausted, and not another word was exchanged for almost a minute. The retired policeman leaned back in his kitchen chair and drew on his pipe. He knew he was no longer expected to come up with a pithy comment or any sharp question which would shed a new light on the case. Those days had long since passed, and the exchange between the two men seemed like a ritual attaching to a mystery which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unravelling.
The Latin name was Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It was a plant about four inches high with small, heather-like foliage and a white flower with five petals about one inch across. The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. . .
Now, in America we all seem to believe that one can’t argue with success. Yet, if this remains the best we professionals can do, I’m a little concerned about the future of the amateurs. Because let us not forget: reading and writing remain the best activities for promoting critical thinking and growing the human brain. Students have been taught to write in the passive voice (sentences have no actor in them, as this one. Who taught the students to do it?,) which solves a few problems (overuse of “I”) but the cure becomes worse than the disease. It leads to cliche’d and passive thinking.
I have no opinion on the plotting, characterization, attention-getting ability, expositional effectiveness, or any other aspect of Larssen’s work here. He may well be a genius beyond my ken. My example only applies to his use of language, which, by the standards described in this article, scores “mediocre” at best. His characters certainly should be forgiven for their terseness and inarticulateness, designed in by the author as part of a shorthand between intimates. In fact, in many ways, they speak better than the narrator (who, in two cases, uses “to be” forms three times in one sentence.) This may sound pompous of me and hopelessly outmoded, but I would never let one of my own students get away with that.
Now lest anyone object that these can’t be improved–that sometimes one must use a lesser word–you are correct. It’s true. But, most of the time, it only takes another pass. And some sweat of the brow.
The plant, native to the Australian bush and uplands, grew [hid, nestled, waited discovery] among tussocks of grass.
Much more efficient–AND the emphasis shifts to the important element under discussion–the plant itself. But then again, not the best way to get paid by the word, fill up more pages, consume people’s time, or, much like the rare flower of the book, encourage the growth of readers, among stagnant masses.
Perhaps the world does know Larsson’s name–for the moment–and I’m sure he’s made his money. Will he, or The Script and will.i.am, ever share company with that other famous William, of the 16th century, master of i.am.bic pentameter? I wonder: After all, no one ever rode into the Hall of Fame on their third- and second-best.
Most sink to the master standard of our time–“Good enough”–or tread water as the Good many were born with. Only the few rise to Greatness. Because they’re willing to earn it. Learn. Sweat. Think. Work harder, smarter, and better.
But hey, as the Most like to say: it is what it is.