Responding to my posting below about poor website writing, a reader makes the following argument:
My feeling is that poor use of language isn’t actually the problem: it’s a symptom of sloppy thinking.
Interesting chicken and egg issue here. Does poor command of language reflect sloppy thinking, or create it?
No doubt somewhere out there is a vast learned literature on this question.
Let’s start at home. I tend to think that children are capable of sophisticated reasoning, bargaining and so on, even if they sometimes lack the words to articulate accurately what they are trying to achieve.
So maybe the answer is that there is a virtuous spiral at work here. As one grows up one learns how to articulate one’s arguments via a growing vocabulary, and with a growing accurate vocabulary one is able to see – and make – increasingly subtle points of substance and logic.
Which is why education plays a core role. If teachers and parents encourage children to love words and all the clever things one can do with them, those children will have better tools to do more jobs in life.
If teachers and parents allow children to speak poorly and thereby dumb down the language by letting nuances of meaning, grammar and spelling fall away, those children will just be poorer. They will have fewer ways of being effective in countless situations than they might have had.
The usual lame answer to that is that it makes no sense for deprived children to be ‘compelled’ to speak and write in a posh Dead White Male sort of way.
Apart from the fact that the progressive hypocrites who make this claim themselves almost invariably write and speak pretty well as part of making their own living, the point in fact goes exactly the other way.
Because these children are deprived it is all the more important that they be given the biggest possible tool-box of skills to help them achieve something in life. And an appreciative mastery of skillful English is a toolbox with global advantage. Communication defines more and more of what we do and how we do it.
Look at Edge intellectual leaders debating behavioural economics:
Who is a choice architect? Everyone in this room is a choice architect. Anyone who designs the environment in which you choose is a choice architect.
If you go to a restaurant, there is a menu. Somebody thought about how to structure that menu. In many restaurants you have appetizers, then main courses. In some restaurants the main courses are divided into meat, fish and pasta. In others they are all mixed up. Sometimes they are arranged in order of price. Sometimes there is no apparent order.
Everything we know about psychology tells us that all of those things matter. Everything matters…
People who might have been smart enough to follow these brilliant discussions but have not been trained up to the level of linguistic mastery to do so have suffered an existential life disaster. And as they sit sulking and bickering near a grubby fast-food outlet, communicating in a bleak and impoverished monosyllabic vocabulary, they maybe sense what has happened and feel all the more resentful and violent.
Down we all go together.
Here is a neat piece picking up George Orwell’s preoccupation with this question and its strategic political ramifications:
Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink…
Magnificent. And no less applicable today.
One of my favourite political moments was the Panorama interview with Margaret Thatcher as the 1987 election loomed. She was asked about her policy on inflation.
Maybe the Q and A were somehow choreographed? The camera panned in to close-up as she replied "I believe in honest money".
A simple yet philosophically profound answer. How many of the current political elite in the West either think about Honest Money – or dare say they do?
Such powerful answers as that require rare command of thought and language.
Sharp thinking and sharp language – one and the same thing?
Ha. I see that I have competition. How does my writing compare with Judy’s?