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Call me old-fashioned but...“Tripping on the tongue:” reading, writing, and rhetoric

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Opinion | February 1st, 2010



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I prefer the term “shades” to “sunglasses,” calling men “gents” or “fellows,” saying that “I shall” rather than “I will” partake in a given activity, and receiving flattery consisting of being described as “fetching,” “delectable,” “well-mannered,” and “poised,” instead of having my looks equated with a certain temperature reading someone experiences in the summer. I may even bust out a little “thee” and “thou” action. The important message to grasp from my elaborate comparison of synonyms is this: as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein so rightly pointed out, in the early 1900s, “The limits of [one’s] language mean the limits of [one’s] world.” What this means, it’s not just a matter of electing one word over the other, one’s choices in words deeply reflect his thought processes. Further, as we know from our adoption of “professionalism” at job interviews, the way in which we express ourselves both verbally and textually serves as a signifier of the groups to which we belong.

Carrying on from last week’s discussion of the misuse and abuse of words of great significance, an elaboration on modern society’s general “bastardization” of the English language seemed merited. While discourse scholars would argue my stance is similar to a conservative “prescriptivist” (i.e.: one who is incapable of accepting the so-called natural evolution of language, and thus makes it her mission to instruct others on how to speak and write properly in an attempt to resurrect dead aspects of a given dialect), I’d like to pose a personal challenge to individuals to be able to come up with at least 101 unique, MODERN ways to describe love or the beauty of a woman as eloquently and as effectual as Shakespeare. Any takers? No, I didn’t think so!

While both my spoken vernacular and scribbles have been labeled “verbose,” I’ll have you know that never once have I received criticism in regards to my elocution. In fact, quite the opposite is true…I’ve oft been characterized as one with a strong command of my mother tongue; something I chalk up to the fact that yes, as a child, I used to read the dictionary as a bedtime story.

So while I don’t (and for that matter can’t) expect a restoration of the “word-smithing” practices pervasive during the Elizabethan era, I do have some suggestions as to how to improve the proficiency of your own dialogue, be it written or uttered:

1. Cut Back on Cussing
Though I admit this is a problematic area for me, particularly when I’m immersed in casual social arenas, the excessive use of profanity in one’s speech ultimately makes said person sound ignorant. Just like love, the “f-bomb” should be reserved for when you really mean it, and not as an interjection into your sentences every second or third word. Take a gander at that old dusty thesaurus waiting to be noticed on your bookshelf for other word alternatives. While you’re at it, give Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day FB application a go – you won’t be disappointed.

2. Revisit the Rules of Syntax
Any ESL student can tell you that learning English, because of all of its irregularities, requires substantial dedication. However, that does not give us native speakers an excuse for laxness when it comes to clause formation, especially not those of you who are currently enrolled at a post-secondary institution.

I largely attribute the blame for students’ inability to construct grammatically correct essays to Microsoft Word with their spell-check and auto-correct. But, even then, such programs are never foolproof (i.e.: they often miss subtle grammatical errors such as when it’s appropriate to use their, there, or they’re).

3. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!
Though your professors have likely been instructing you to do so for years, I’m sure there are several of you who fail to give your work the once-over. While editing throughout an assignment is an absolute must, you will not catch the most glaring of errors until you actually read aloud a hardcopy of your report to yourself or a friend.

The act of proofreading is a much-neglected practice that not only negatively affects scholarly tasks when poorly executed, but can also create serious rifts in your personal life (resulting from miscommunication). This can all be avoided if you take those few extra seconds to ensure what you’ve written is what you actually want to say. In two words: slow down!

For those of you courageous enough to take the next leap with your lexicon expansion and authorship endeavours, I suggest purchasing yourselves a nice hand-crafted silver-tipped quill and inkwell; the art of calligraphy is good fun. One final thing, do yourselves a favour: learn the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Oh, and a true student of the English language is well aware that the age of “Old English” did in fact NOT correspond with Shakespeare’s life and times.

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