by Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh: President, Word Branch Media
“The written English language is not decoration!” I thought to myself. This thought comes to me fairly often as I look at butchered ads, badly written articles or, gulp, botched blogs. Written language is code—symbols for the real thing. If the symbols are nouns (person, place or thing—remember grade school?) then they are concrete, touchable for the most part. But if the symbols are verbs, ah, then it gets interesting. Verbs are the philosophers of language, creating intangible ideas ranging from mundane actions to enigmatic infinitives: to be . . . or not.
So with all these wonderful verb and nouns held together by functional articles and flamboyant adverbs and adjectives, why do we feel the need to decorate language with a flourish of unneeded commas, apostrophes and capital letters? Is it because we’re afraid that the weight of our thoughts is not enough to capture the attention of our audience? Or is it because no one taught us the right way? I suspect a little of the former and a lot of the latter.
So that puts a heavy burden on us English teachers. Before we wail about how hard we try and nobody listens, let’s ask ourselves how we are getting the message out and how we can be more effective. How can we take language from the loftiness of academics to the earthiness of craft?
And you writers, you’re not getting off so easily either. Have confidence in your words so that you don’t need to decorate them with extra punctuation like so much cheap glitter. Take the time to learn the language with all of its nuances and complexities. Learn the code.
And so I don’t come off looking like too much of a pompous ass, let me confess. As a writer, I’ve made a mistake or two . . . or many more . . . over the years, and I’ve been tempted to sprinkle some decorative glitter from time to time. As a teacher, I’ve failed to engage my students or to drive home my anti-glitter campaign. I accept my burden.
Fifteenth century Roman emperor, Sigismund, claimed, “I am the Roman Emperor and am above grammar.” I suppose if you are a Roman emperor you can do what you want. However, those of us who aren’t should play by the rules.
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