Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular construction, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.
But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur, ironically, in proportion to education and rank.
~ William Zinsser, On Writing Well, New York, Harper, 1998
The current disrespect for American English is very sad. First of all, it’s a language that prides itself in having rules of structure and pronunciation that are often broken. This makes it one of the hardest-to-learn languages in the world. One reason is that American English uses constructions and words borrowed from many sources. Beyond that, younger Americans seem to ignore any prior form of language discipline (vocabulary, grammar and punctuation). And the number of abbreviations and acronyms that have been created must completely bewilder foreigners trying to understand us.
Video versus Audio
It’s not that a language shouldn’t move on or evolve—as American English has certainly done over the centuries. It’s just that, as the American culture has gotten less formal, more casual, and even somewhat sloppy, so have the rules that have governed American English. Many people brought up from the mid-1950s onward were raised with television (TV), a medium that places more value on video content than audio content (unlike radio, which was all audio). And while already in a subservient role on TV, the audio content has been battered by the latest slang, hip, cool, colloquial, or regional word or phrase—or worse, by complete misuse or mispronunciation. And the younger public school teachers, who were raised in this atmosphere, haven’t taught language skills with the same discipline that existed before that time.
One only has to listen to today’s vocal music recordings, for example, to find that the thoughts expressed are banal and often vulgar, they’re sometimes almost impossible to understand, and they’re often annoyingly repetitive. The reason is that it’s the beat and the loudness that count now. However, from the early 1900s to the 1960s, spoken lyrics were completely clear and easy to remember. They were recognized by the brain as words spoken in everyday speech. And the music had a hummable quality, a melody, to it. It was often broken into verses and choruses, rather than today’s constant, monotonous endless beat and volume. And those older songs actually had an ending; it wasn’t a matter of repeating the same words over and over while the recording volume is reduced to zero.
The Effect on Writing
With the younger generations’ ears being blasted by sound, children were not being trained to listen—really carefully listen. The result of all of these forces has been the diminishing of proper spelling, well-constructed grammar, and careful pronunciation. They’ve been replaced by slang, colloquialisms, vulgarity, clutter, poor grammar, and the like.
Sadly, many people now lack knowledge about correct speech and writing. And this isn’t just an academic issue. Poor writing (structure, flow, grammar and word usage) can lead to a credibility issue. Whether it’s in an e-mail, a website, a blog or a book, words and grammar convey a message from one person to an audience. And depending on the quality of communication, people will make a decision about the author and/or the message.
This person was a deluge of words and a drizzle of thought.
~ Peter De Vries, Comfort Me With Apples
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