Language Matters

Words matter.

I’ve written about this before. I get up every morning and go to work and know that quality of communications makes a difference. History is filled with simple words and phrases that define epochs, mark turning points in history and dramatically shift perceptions. “and yet it  moves” (attributed to Galileo) is remembered as the point at which science began to trump religion. “Have you no decency, sir?” marked the end of the McCarthy era. Of course there are millions of examples, big and small, where great communication, great rhetoric, great soundbites had huge impact. (politics is especially filled with these, some of which in retrospect tipped elections).

This comes to mind because, as is often the wont, there is currently wailing and gnashing of teeth re: the younger generation, this time on how twitter and texting is destroying the ability to communicate. Clive Thompson has a worthwhile counterpoint. The point that leaped out at me (bold mine):

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.

And that is a welcome reminder. Words have an effect on the world, they have power that we often tend to forget or dismiss. There is even a nursery rhyme that suggests maybe words don’t hurt…one that you can believe I have not shared with any of my kids! 🙂 I prefer this one instead, a bit harder to say in full but much truer to the world (full citation here):

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself a nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

Over the last five years or so, there has been a ton written and blogged about the death of one thing or another, journalism, public relations, marketing, advertising, book writing. Those of us in the communications industry – all of us, journalists, writers, analysts, advertising execs, bloggers, PR people – sometimes need reminding that despite the obituaries written for us, the rule of language continues apace.

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