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Author Topic: Choosing the Right Words  (Read 143 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: September 11, 2017, 11:47:28 PM »

Most general discussions of the English language pursue the idea of using it to write or speak clearly, forcefully, and truthfully. We assume that the best way to communicate is to use English that is open, transparent, and scrupulously honest. In real life, however, this is not always advisable and prudent. If we were that honest, in fact, we could be putting ourselves into all sorts of inconvenience or trouble.

Imagine yourself one sunny morning about the take the elevator on your way to some business meeting. The elevator opens and you see three or four people there, probably just nodding acquaintances. You say, “Good morning!” and one or two probably will say “Good morning!” in return. But what if you get completely open and frank answers instead? One might ask pointedly, “What’s good with the morning? My corns are killing me!” Another who missed breakfast might blurt out, “Are you kidding? I’m starving!” The third might hiss, “Can’t you see I’m sick and tired? Mind your own business!” And so on with many other possible unpleasant or unnerving remarks.


The point is that our choice of words in dealing with people obviously does not depend on vocabulary and grammar alone. Outside of our desire to be social animals, the motivations for our word choices can actually range very widely. Our job or the situations we find ourselves in often require us to persuade or to convince somebody, to plead or to argue, or to simply give vent to our anger. The emotional content of our words, of course, increases in proportion to the desired level of persuasiveness or the extent of our anger. Still, we can be civilized in such situations. We can remain sincere and honest in giving information or in expressing our thoughts and feelings.

At the other extreme of choosing words, however, is the deliberate intent to confuse or to deceive. Dishonesty and deception are very much a part of the human condition, and we all know that they almost always have self-interest and greed at their core. This is rarely evident at first blush, however. Good persuaders and deceivers are often scrupulously correct in their grammar and demeanor, yet extremely adept in giving the wrong context by using the wrong words at the right places. The pyramid scam artist promises to the investor exorbitant interest earnings that he ultimately cannot deliver. The lawyer declares with a straight face that his client is “innocent of the crime” when, in fact, national TV had caught her pumping bullets into the skull and heart of the man who had betrayed her. The zealot piously intones that his religion is the “one and only way to salvation,” closing his eyes to hundreds of other religions that are doing as nicely in assuring people of their salvation. The line that separates legitimate persuasion and outright deception is often a very thin one, indeed!

The English language is a particularly rich trove of words not only for expressing and clarifying ideas but also for obfuscating and fudging them. There are at present about 885,000 English words in all, making English the wordiest language in the planet. (German is a far second with 185,000 words, followed by French and Spanish with about 100,000 each.) This rich vocabulary gives English-language users unparalleled flexibility in custom-tailoring messages to suit their purposes. More than any other language, however, English also gives them the greatest amount of latitude to make clear and grammar-perfect messages that are deliberately vague, ambiguous, or deceptive.


Consider how flexible we can be with the word “say.” Roget’s Thesaurus lists no less than 152 words and phrases synonymous to it. Newspapermen trained in objective reporting often use “say” for its simplicity, replacing it only every now and then with “claim,” “state,” or some such word. Among opinion writers and columnists, however, “say” acquires color and becomes “insist,” “aver,” “gush,” “exclaim,” even “opine” (horrors!). Among lawyers, “say” becomes “stipulate,” “testify,” “warrant,” “manifest,” “corroborate,” or any of several other long legal terms. And to think that we have not even considered the thousands of permutations of “say” when people from all the professions start adding adverbs or modifying phrases to it!

One saving grace in this state of affairs, however, is that we don’t need all those 152 synonyms of “say” at all. In fact, we don’t need all of those 885,000 words in the English language either. All we have to do is not to try to speak or write like what we are not—certainly not as lawyers, scientists, or preachers. By just being ourselves, it has been estimated that we can get by nicely with just about 38,000 English words. These are the very same words that the average educated person uses, proof that still our best bet in expressing ourselves is—whatever our profession or motive—not some fancy language in polysyllables but plain and simple English.

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently formed Chapter 3, Section 1 of Part III: Usage and Style of his book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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