Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The flexibility of English

I typed the above title for my post this week with trepidation. I mean, instead of one of my weekly ramblings, it could be the title of a doctoral thesis. I will endeavor to be more brief – and quicker in production!

I am by no means a language specialist, but I’m always struck by the myriad of ways things can be said in English and turn out to have much the same meaning. I’m sure that can be done in French or Italian, etc., but I have heard people with more linguistic skill than I possess make much the same comment.

I deal with trying to change the length of sentences or phrases all the time in my day job of graphic design. Sometimes I don’t have the luxury. The copy I’m handed has to stay the way it is and it’s up to my skill and creativity as a typographer to make it all fit and look good (and looking good is the real trick as well as a complete pain a lot of the time).

(Now, what you just didn’t see behind the scenes as I worked on the above paragraph, was that I had to change up some of the words. In this case it was all to quickly polish the prose. The ‘as well as’ in the parenthetical phrase was used to replace an ‘and’.)

Quite often I’ll look at a particularly long sentence when revising a manuscript, and the first thing that crosses my mind is, What the hell were you thinking when you wrote that mess? My second thought then is, Do you even need it? Generally, the answer is yes. There’s some sort of information that needs to be included.

(My first choice for ‘included’ which closes the above paragraph was ‘in there’. Upon reflection it seemed a bit too casual.)

With my two most recent publications, The Boom Room, and Roses for a Diva, I was faced contract stipulations on word limits, so using smart word choices was more important than normal. With the added requirement of simple, clear two- and three-syllable words for Rapid Read books (The Boom Room is one of these), you can see how critical flexibility in vocabulary can become.

I like to think I have a pretty extensive vocabulary, but faced with many books from the 1800s and early 1900s, I have to read with a dictionary at my elbow. Last time I read a book by E.M. Forster, I had to look up about an average of one word per page.

The problem is that the vocabulary in everyday use has been steadily shrinking for a number of years. Those unfamiliar words in Forster? They’re no longer in general usage (if they ever were). I mourn their loss.

But I won’t be using any of them. Why? Because I don’t think the average reader wants to read one of my novels with a dictionary at their elbow. If I were writing “literature”, I would be more tempted to pepper my prose a few obscure words (if only to annoy reviewers and professors of literature).

Successful writing these days seems to require an immediacy that precludes long, multi-phrase sentences and obscure words.

Within those sorts of restrictions, I’m glad that our choice of words in English is still fairly wide. Want an interesting exercise? Get your hands on a thesaurus from eighty or a hundred years ago, and compare it with a more modern one – meaning one that has been updated to reflect current vocabulary and word usage. The difference between the two is quite striking.

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