In previous posts, I’ve argued that clear, straightforward language in writing is best. When you have something to say, presenting it in transparent language puts the focus on the content itself, allowing it to achieve its best effect. Contrariwise (if you’ll forgive my ironic vernacular) a person who employs elevated diction to articulate his or her reflections is quite often endeavoring to camouflage a poverty of substance. Or, as Charles Bukowski put it, “An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.”
Now, Bukowski and I both started out as blue-collar workers, so I recognize that our cries for simple language might be dismissed by the more conservative members of the language arts community as mere populism. We might even be accused of Marxist leanings, a struggle for the means of production—in this case words. To such critics, a certain elegance of language is the very mark of a quality education; erudition displays refinement, which equates with “polite society.”
Robert Pirsig captures this contrast of positions in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while considering “plain speech,” which he suggests descends from “Plains speech.” Pirsig argues that during the 1800s, while “proper” citizens along the US’s East Coast retained the refined language of their European contacts, settlers moving westward were increasingly influenced by the more laconic speech of the natives they encountered. Pretty much every Western movie now portrays these iconic examples in the “slick-talking Easterner” versus the “quiet, straight-shooting Western hero.”
So what are we to make of this disparity?
I will concede that erudition has its place. That place is precision. The English language includes so many words (a quarter of a million) largely because each provides some shade of meaning that none other quite conveys. In choosing precisely this word over precisely that, a writer can capture nuances that might otherwise be difficult to express. However, in order for that expression to succeed, the reader must share the same understanding of those words. Otherwise communication is actually lost or distorted in the very words intended to transmit it. What good is there in employing terms your reader may not know, simply to demonstrate your own education?
A New York Times article describes a problem regarding restaurants that insist upon a jacket and tie for dinner, even in 100-degree heat. The dress code is intended to promote a pleasant dining experience, ensuring that no one “will come with the shirt open to the stomach,” as one restaurant owner put it. But any supposed pleasantness is surely lost on the fellow sweating under that unnecessary load of clothing. At this point, the tenet becomes merely an affectation. Better to revert to a simpler “No shirt, no shoes, no service” rule, which ensures sanitation while still allowing for comfort.
I hope the implications regarding elevated diction are obvious.
There is one other instance in which “nicety” of language has a legitimate role, and that is in diplomacy. Diplomacy requires a carefulness of expression to deflect possible offense. It is, as someone remarked, “the art of choosing from among everything you believe, which thing you will say.” However, when diplomatic expression becomes too habitual, or when it is actually nothing but dissembling, communication is again sacrificed.
A final reason I argue for simple clarity of language is that when people try to reach for elevated diction, they so often get it wrong—and then judge one another negatively based on their own misapprehensions. How often have you been told, “Don’t split an infinitive” or “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” or “Don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’”? (See www.grammarphobia.com for a great overview of these false “rules.”) How many times have you heard the mistaken hypercorrection “for he and I”? How many times has someone “corrected” you on one of these issues? What happens to the message itself while we’re all busy arguing over such niceties?
The true mark of a lady or gentleman, I have heard it said, is comfort with oneself. Would that we might be so comfortable with natural, straightforward language as to recognize its inherent dignity.