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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Vague Thinking=Vague Writing

The following essay appeared in the Collections•Culture Section of the Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 26, 2012. The author, David Woods, is a Philadelphia writer

Vague Thinking = Vague Writing
The importance of language slipping in today’s culture.

When the body of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is brought before the Romans, does the bard have them say, “Who dunnit?” No, he has Mark Antony deliver the eloquent “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech.

And the Roman poet Horace showed his lyrical skill with: “Pick today’s fruits, not relying on the future in the slightest.” Carpe Diem. He did not, you will note, say, “Have a nice day.”
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In both cases, the writers knew a simple truth: that language matters. It’s something that seems lost in today’s culture.

Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, thinks part of the problem is that students have lost the practice of reading; they want to be thought “authentic,” and that means having few cultural pretensions. Thus, they refuse to make what they see as “hypocritical ritual bows to high culture.”

Bloom blames their attitude in part on schools that have failed to persuade students to read – let alone to like it. And this leads not only to loss of precision and color in language, but also to a defensive posture that language doesn’t matter.

Imprecise language occurs when people don’t think first about exactly what it is they want to say. Either that, or they are attempting to paper over their lack of vocabulary by such excrescences as the prevalent and ubiquitous “like” – as in, “I’m not – like – into reading.”

The vocabulary-challenged are not the only ones who can be imprecise. Scientists often sprinkle their language with jargon in trying to show that they’re doing something important. And politicians – who should be masters of oratory – contribute to the decline of eloquence as well.

But problems abound. Think about “going forward,” for example, a greatly overused phrase that should surely be stopped in its tracks. Or “at the end of the day,” which might usefully be dispatched well before dusk. I heard another linguistic villain – “if you will” – from a speaker at least 10 times at a recent conference, leaving me decidedly intestate.

George Orwell, whose prose was eloquently clear and direct, believed that the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. He suggested that much political language consists of euphemism and hedging. He gives a wonderful example of the decline of eloquence, starting by quoting the well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

“I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise nor riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

He translates this into modern English:

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
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Why this decline in eloquence? In part, it’s the failure of schools to teach reading and language skills; it’s also the lowest-common-denominator language of television and, increasingly, of newspapers. It might also have to do with notions of egalitarianism: to speak with clarity and verve is somehow seen as elitist or effete.

Part of the solution might be a renewed respect for graceful speech and writing. This will be attained by proper and early teaching, and wide and eclectic reading. It might also help to ridicule or satirize the sloppy language that is the product of sloppy thinking and that makes for mighty dull listening.

“Talking and eloquence are not the same,” said Ben Jonson. “To speak and speak well are two things.”

Eloquently said.

Comments on David Woods essay can also be made at:  hmi3000@comcast.net

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