Laxity and language

It is a common assumption that lax language is an indicator of lax thought – that a careful thinker will use careful language. Typically riding along with this assumption is another: that “careful language” means formal language adhering to a particular set of prescriptive norms.

The first assumption may seem reasonable enough, prima facie, though, as we will see, there are important limitations and reservations to it. The second assumption is a non-sequitur, the sort of idea that would have a person wear a tuxedo to a construction job. But its effects are pervasive. In fact, it’s been shown that people will rate more highly a weak argument expressed in formal language than a good argument expressed in casual language.

Part of the problem is a general conflation of formality with care. One can use formal words without being careful about them, and one can quite deliberately and carefully use slang and other casual language for effect. Some of the most effective messages in politics and advertising have been crafted in informal language. Indeed, great philosophical insights and thoughtful analyses can be expressed in language that seems sloppy. “You oughta do the same things to other folks as you’d like them to do to you.” (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) “Look, the only thing I know is: I know. Ain’t nothin’ sure beyond that.” (Cogito ergo sum.) “If you got one thing in a place, you can’t have another thing in exactly the same place just then.” (Two bodies cannot occupy the same space.) True, the flavour is different, and the language may be less concise (though in some cases the plain version of an analysis is actually more concise – see below). But the understanding conveyed is the same. And beyond that, there are many professional engineers and similar people who are very vigorous and careful thinkers, but whose English is riddled with errors and nonstandard usages. Their drawings and equations are, of course, perfectly reliable.

Among world languages and cultures, sophistication of morphosyntax, whatever that may be (is it greater complexity or greater elegance? it’s almost undefinable), does not seem to correlate with sophistication of thought. And, more importantly, adherence to prescriptive norms can actually evince lack of thought – dogmatism without regard for effect – while masquerading as intelligence. A mind that can only manage one mode of communication regardless of context is not careful, it’s inflexible. And, in spite of what many people would have you believe, inflexibility is a mark of an inferior mind, not a superior one.

In short, it is reasonable to expect that careful thinkers will also more likely be careful users of words. But care in use of words is often misunderstood. Colloquialism can be very inventive – in fact, the inventive spirit is the source of much slang – and “proper” language can be very thick-headed.

To look at the limiting effect of the formality prejudice, consider academic writing and similar registers such as medical jargon. They present themselves as being more precise, and in academic writing the expectation is that this apparently rigorous language is giving a rigorous analysis and adding new perspective. But much of the time they don’t say anything truly new or present a truly fresh perspective. Consider the difference between medical jargon and regular speak: “Sildenafil is contraindicated in hypertension.” “Don’t take Viagra if you have high blood pressure.” Both mean the same thing; the first simply adds the medical in-group sense (“I know this subject, so listen to me”) and uses standardized terminology – and is less likely to be understood by the people who actually use the drug. Much academic writing does the same: the words are not the keys to new understanding; they are just the keys to the door of the private club, the secret passwords to the clubhouse.

This is a topic of which I have some knowledge. I read a lot of academic jargon while getting my PhD, and wrote some of it too (though I always tried to be readable). Defamiliarization, properly done, requires new metaphors, new perspectives, new angles, and not simply more obscurantist ways of saying the same old thing. The only insight given by “Senescent canines are unreceptive to education in novel behaviour modes” that is not given by “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is that it’s possible to say something in ten-dollar words that you could easily say in two-bit words. And, on the other hand, “Adaptability is inversely correlated with age” may seem the most direct and precise statement of the concept, but it’s not as effective in conveying the idea and making it stick. What good is precise information if it’s not retained?

True, new angles of thought and deeper analyses can lead to different use of language, can even demand certain kinds of novel terminology, and one does need to write with precision and key the reader’s mind to receiving the information in a certain mode. I’m not saying don’t write using the academic register! Those expensive words are like expensive wines: people may pay more attention to what they can get from them. But there’s quite a lot out there that is really unremarkable thought packaged in bloated syntax, like a taxi driver who takes you through Jersey and Staten Island to get from Manhattan to JFK Airport – you pay more, it takes longer, but the end result is no different.

I don’t want to say that all academic writing is BS. “Academic BS” does not equal “all academic writing.” And I don’t want to say that people should write in an inappropriate register. As I say so often, language is known by the company it keeps; people will receive your prose on the basis of the expectations created by your choice of words and syntax. But one ought not to hide behind needlessly abstruse syntax and vocabulary; there is still a responsibility to produce actually fresh ideas rather than just putting new lipstick on the old pig.

And, more generally, as many a salesman and preacher knows, putting things in nice, direct language can be very effective and clear. And, as many a body in universities and business management knows, you can often hide the fact that you have little to say by saying it with impressive-sounding words. But that’s often, not always, and you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

So don’t fool yourself. Hiding behind formal language is one of the most pervasive kinds of laxity in English usage – not evidence of careful thought but a means of avoiding it. Remember: if you can’t explain something clearly in plain language, you don’t really understand it.

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9 responses to “Laxity and language

  1. A very valuable piece James! :)

    Michael Quinion used this quotation, in his recent post on ‘Thrasonic’ :

    Let your conversation possess a clarified conciseness, compacted comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement, and asinine affectations. Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility, without rhodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabical profundity, pompous prolixity, and ventriloquial vapidity. Shun double-entendre and prurient jocosity, whether obscure or apparent. In other words, speak truthfully, naturally, clearly, purely, but do not use large words.
    :D

  2. “A mind that can only manage one mode of communication regardless of context is not careful, it’s inflexible. And, in spite of what many people would have you believe, inflexibility is a mark of an inferior mind, not a superior one.”

    You are so right. I’d add another point to your thoughts: The world is full of intelligent people who have some kind of learning disability that affects their speech. My husband is an intelligent and educated man and a voracious reader, but he has a unique way of mixing and mangling words and names that has often made him the butt of jokes. I always thought it was a behaviour he learned as a child to diffuse tense situations by making people laugh. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when both our older children were diagnosed with learning disabilities in their late teens, that I realized this idiosyncrasy is probably a learning disability. In some of the situations in which he finds himself professionally (he works with disadvantaged children and families), I can promise you that not a lax word passes his lips. His vocabulary may include more two-bit words than $10 ones, but his ability to use those words continually astounds me.

    It reminds me a little of what I’ve read about Billie Holiday — that she only had a one-octave range but it was what she could do with that octave that elevated her head and shoulders above the rest.

  3. The other day I happened to reread some of my college term papers while looking for a notebook; I couldn’t agree with you more.

  4. Couldn’t agree more! And how’s that for lax syntax? There are so many misconceptions about language out there it’s nice to read something worth thinking about. :)
    Maybe you’re already aware of it, but I remember reading a text related to this about the frequency of mistakes. Interestingly enough, according to the studies conducted by the authors, it’s the “academics” who make the most mistakes. That is, if you subscribe to modern schools of thought on generative grammars and descriptive approaches to assessing the use of those grammars, then your average Joe who works at the shop on the corner, with all his regional vocabulary and grammar traits, makes virtually no “mistakes” when he speaks. Almost 100% of his utterances are perfectly consistent with the norms of his variant of the English language. The Academic, on the other hand, flips, flops and fumbles his way through quite a lot, mixing up registers and breaking the rules of at least one of them on a fairly frequent basis.
    I’m not sure if that was clear. Later on I’ll have to collect my thoughts and write a post on it.
    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your post. Happy blogging!

  5. Mark: maybe the average Joe speaks clearly and consistently with the norms of his dialect if he is oldish and inclined to be brief. But if you listen to younger people yelling into their cellphones (and it’s hard not to), you hear a fractured, elliptical language, a series of bursts of allusive utterance. Not long ago I heard a girl saying ‘I was like, oh my God — and he was like, f— off.’ Well, we can guess roughly what she meant, and it was within the norms of her generation; but as a coherent utterance it won’t fly.

    • Actually, the sentence you quote may not be Standard English, but it adheres to a well-established standard and is quite coherent within that standard. We needn’t guess roughly what she meant; all we need to do is replace “was like” with “said” (although in this idiom, “be like” is more to introduce a paraphrase than a direct quote, so it actually has a reason to exist in parallel with “say”). Quotatives have evolved over the years, and “be like” has been around for a couple of decades at least.

      That said, I really love listening to ordinary speech. It’s so much more alive than the written kind. And it presents intended, understandable constructions that syntax texts tend to avoid. They’re the most fascinating part of language, because they show that many of our theories about language are insufficient. If every sentence were neat and tidy, it would be awfully boring.

      • Like, oh my God, when I read that, I was like, that’s totally translatable to standard English, to myself. Then I like, read your reply, and I was like, “woah!”

        In all seriousness, your reply was spot on. The sentence could be ‘translated’ to standard English like this: “So I said, “Oh my God.” And he replied: “You’ve got to be kidding.” (Most likely, but there could be other interpretations of “f—- off.” English, like most languages, whether “standard” or colloquial, depends heavily on context cues for interpretation.

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