Sunday, November 07, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about language. And my forthcoming thoughts might not be the most eloquent thing I've ever written (I'm under the weather and can't find the initial notes I made on this topic), but I'll do my best.

First of all, I've been reading (as I've been meaning to for a long time) Naomi Baron's book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. It was published in 2008, and is already out of date in some ways - she talks about instant messaging and text messaging in totally separate ways, when the iPhone and its ilk have basically combined the two. Baron doesn't bemoan the degradation of language or anything over-the-top like that. She is trying to study the effects and evolutions of language online. But the following passage struck me:

Suppose I'm looking for some information on evolution. But it's late at night, or I'm feeling lazy, or I'm not sure of my spelling, so I type 'cHarlz dARwon" into the search box. Google politely inquires, "Did you mean charles darwin?" Sure, Google, that's exactly what I meant (give or take some capitalization). Thank you for obviating the need for me to express myself clearly. The problem is that if I come to rely on Google to figure out what I meant to write, what is my motivation for expressing myself precisely in the first place? (page 179)

I'll leave aside the information literacy implications of this paragraph and stick to the subject. The last sentence resonated with me, since precision in language is something I value very, very highly. I associate precision of language with thoughtfulness; the writer or speaker cared enough to think about how to say exactly what she meant. It's why I like reading (good) poetry. I get frustrated when I hear students or reality show actors utter barely constructed sentences with phrases like "it's almost to the point where" or so many "likes" and "I guess"es that any meaning is obscured. This lack of precision manifested itself in politicians and pundits over the past week, too. "Does the president get it?" "The American people are saying we need to turn this baby around." What do those sentences even mean? The more abstract and vague these talking points, and the more they are blindly repeated in the face of thoughtful, specific questions, the more frustrated I get.

I think that's all I have to say for now on the subject.I'm certainly not perfect, and I don't always say exactly what I wanted to (especially when speaking), but I try. And I just wish that people in general (but especially public figures) were more thoughtful about their words.

Quotation from Baron, Naomi S. Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.