Like, Ya Know?

by James Scott Bell

Words matter.

I am not a grammar snob or the vocabulary sheriff, but I do care about language because that’s what I use to tell a story or make a point. A culture needs both compelling tales and right reason. That’s why It’s important to educate the young about words lest the whole edifice of our human interactivity rot from the bottom up.

When a society’s stratum of inarticulate goofs expands, the ability to cohere as a people necessarily contracts. Eventually you’ll end up with competing tribes who only understand their own particular mode of grunting.

Our current trend line is not a happy one. High school dropouts of the 1950’s were better able to communicate than most college grads today. In fact, read the Civil War letters of soldiers. Written by farm boys in their teens and twenties, they are positively Shakespearean compared to today’s glut of emails and tweets. Don’t u agree?

Soggy language begets soggy thought. When that happens, emotion replaces reason as the sinew of communication (just watch the screaming-head opinion smack downs on TV, or any randomly selected brain softener tagged, euphemistically, a “reality show.”)

Words matter.

Disinterested does not mean uninterested.

“Begs the question” does not mean “Invites the question.”

And “ya know” does not add a convincing note to what you’re trying to say.

I invite you to listen to slam poet Taylor Mali on this topic. Then talk amongst yourselves: Do words still matter? Can language be saved?

5 thoughts on “Like, Ya Know?

  1. Beautifully put by Mr Mali. Some days I despair about the way people have allowed language to fall into disrepair(usually on the days when I have to read a few dozen job applications for entry-level positions at my company). Something tells me though that each generation experiences this same feeling but somehow, in spite of all the horrid things we do to it, language survives and grows. I have to believe that all is not lost.

  2. I invite you all to save yourselves by turning off your televisions (except when The Simpsons comes on) and by giving publishers and newspapers the reward they so richly deserve for cutting back on copy editing. If you’re not part of the solution …
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  3. Peter, that “invites the question” — Where are editors even being trained anymore?

    Thanks for the comment, Bernadette. I love your passion for books (esp. crime fiction) and optimism.

  4. Excellent rant by Mr. Mali. I think we sometimes make a little too much of this. The letters we read from hundreds of years ago were written by the relatively small percentage of people who could write at all; grammar and rhetoric were major courses in schools. Not that they shouldn’t be today, but there are a lot of other subjects competing for time that weren’t of concern them.

    While the general level of discourse is lower, that may be expected too. If literacy is nearly universal, there will be a greater number of people who are more or less literate, yet still relatively inarticulate, so we’re going to notice them more.

    What’s sad is the decline of speech in those who should know better, or who depend on it for their living. News commentators, politicians, lawyers, journalists. Rarely a day goes by I don’t read something in a major publication and shake my head.

    @Peter: I’ve trading emails with a recently bought out columnist for the Washington Post about what you commented on here. He agrees with us, but says they just don’t care that their credibility may be adversely affected by these lapses.

  5. Dana, I don’t know details, but the Washington Post was notorious for its mistreatment of copy editors.

    I don’t know the management history at the Washington Post, but since newsrooms are generally run by former reporters, and since the reporter has yet to be born who ever admitted that he or she was a weak writer, the results are predictable. I have been at my newspaper for twenty years. During that time, one top-level news editor has dared to suggest that the quality of the writing could be better. She suggested this once, and the subject has never come up again.

    For the literate reader, most American newspapers are not worth reading.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

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