Brevity

twitter-execution

Silk’s Post #156 — Has there ever, in the long history of the written word, been a more diminishing, devaluing trend than the imposition of the 140-character tweet as the arbitrary standard for social media discourse?

Has written expression been stripped of all its depth and nuance, and reduced in the Twitterverse to simplistic word belches? Slogans. Headlines. Blurts. Clichés. Inanities masquerading as deep thoughts. Rabble rousing provocations. Nyah nyah nyah taunts. (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump).

Anything worth saying requires more than 140 characters, doesn’t it? Is the world’s written expression in danger of being reduced to captions and emoticons? Is the richness and beauty of wordcraft being abandoned by an impatient audience trained to salivate for the next thing instead of the real thing? Is the literary sky falling?

Brevity is the soul of wit has become the watchword of tweeters, bloggers, copywriters, politicians, pundits, comedians, and others who use words as their professional currency since The Bard assigned that line to Polonius in Hamlet. Was Shakespeare wrong, or was he prescient?

As is often the case, Shakespeare’s subtleties tend to get lost when cherry-picked phrases are appropriated to serve a modern purpose. A little context: these ironic lines spoken by the foolish chatterbox Polonius, who thinks himself the smartest guy in the room, couch news of Hamlet’s madness to his parents, the King and Queen, in a gust of unnecessary and self-aggrandizing claptrap which demonstrates the speaker’s inability to take his own advice on brevity:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time;

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad …

Yet, no matter how ironically delivered, the truth of the gem hidden in an almost throw-away clause lives on in proverb. And there’s good reason for that.

Brevity is hard to achieve.

Writing short is much harder than writing long. Doing it well – that is to say achieving brevity while conveying meaning, beauty, truth, in short: wit – is the hardest of all.

I have a confession to make. I used to be an advertising copywriter. I don’t mean I did it in between more noble gigs or bouts of unemployment – I did it for decades. It was my career. And if you can separate what I learned from its commercial context, the gem of truth in that experience is that writing great advertising – with its rigid, Twitter-like restrictions on length and format – is hellishly difficult.

Want to know why there’s so much truly horrible, cringe-worthy, throw-your-shoe-at-the-TV advertising? That’s why. It’s hard. Only truly talented writers – people who can understand a human desire, capture a resonant thought, and stir a genuine emotion using a minimum of powerful words and imagery – are capable of creating great ads. And these writers, as even a casual acquaintance with the media makes perfectly clear, are rare.

At the risk of turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, look at poetry as another example of the challenge – and power – of brevity. Who has ever written a haiku? I see a lot of hands going up. Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing class, or been a bookish teenager in love, has probably written a haiku.

Now the punchline: who has ever written a good haiku? I realize it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a good haiku and a lame one (which should be a clue in itself). Yes, the exotic format does tend to make all haiku poems seem profound. But they’re not. Many of them are nonsense. (You can probably see by now how I’m working my way back to Twitter.)

I asked at the beginning whether the corrupting influence of tweets – essentially packaged word snacks – are killing our hunger for, and skill at preparing, full-course word meals. Are we dumbing down our communications in a way that risks dumbing down our ability to think, to use our full array of synapses to understand complex ideas and appreciate subtle nuances in written expression?

Scary question.

But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. More words don’t necessarily translate into more meaningful words. Maybe the existential challenge still is learning to convey more meaning using less words.

Brevity is the soul of wit – “wit” in Shakespeare’s context meaning intelligence, wisdom, perspective (with appreciation, in dramatic terms, for life as simultaneously both a tragedy and a comedy). In just 26 characters, he nails the writer’s challenge of capturing the “soul” – the essence of the conflict-laden human condition – in the most concentrated, evocative language possible.

It’s an art so difficult to truly master that it remains a rare commodity. I believe it’s a skill that needs to be cultivated and practised by all writers, whether they turn their hand to poetry, essays, short stories, novels, speeches, or, yes, even the modern vernacular of advertising and social media.

Can you write well? Good! Can you write short? If you tweet, that question answers itself.

Now try conveying a page of meaning in a single paragraph. Or a sentence. It’s fantastic mental and creative exercise. It might even turn you into a poet, and help keep the literary sky from falling.

Lives of punctuation marks

question-mark

Silk’s Post #155 — If you don’t think deeply about punctuation marks, you’re not alone. They are the ever present but rarely noticed sentinels of the sentence. The grammatical traffic cops of wordsmithery. Like the Beefeater guards at the Queen’s House, they carry out their ancient duties to bring order to the page in silent anonymity. Only when misplaced or otherwise abused do they draw attention to themselves.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that, like the Beefeaters, punctuation marks really don’t change much from year to year. Actually, they don’t even change much from century to century.

Think about this: in the last quarter of 2015 alone, the Oxford English Dictionary admitted 111 new word entries into its lexicon, including cisexism, gramps, locovore and tradeocracy (look ’em up).

Now, when was the last time you heard of anyone adding a new punctuation mark?

Yes, there have been some experimental hybrids, but most of them have failed outside the lab. When released into the real world, they were unable to sustain themselves and had to go on unemployment.

Think of the interrobang, for instance. You’ve never heard of it? Back in 1962, ad man Martin K. Speckter thought it would be useful to splice together a question mark with an exclamation point. Whaaaat?! Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, I’m sure. Especially for advertising copy.

But, although it was incorporated into a few modern type fonts and, during the 1960s, was even included on some Remington and Smith-Corona typewriters (remember typewriters?), the interrobang is essentially homeless today. You might find one sleeping in the back alley of an obscure typeface, but it never really became a member of punctuation mark society.

Although not growing, that exclusive society has a stable population of marks that refuse to die. They may go into semi-retirement from time to time, but they never seem to be declared obsolete.

No, there’s no equivalent to the decommissioning of a word like quagswagging when it comes to punctuation marks. I can’t say I’ll miss quagswagging personally (it means to chatter, babble, talk idly or senselessly), because I’d never heard it before I found it in my search for abandoned words. Perhaps a year from now it will disappear altogether, even from the logophile websites. R.I.P., quagswagging.

My point is that language changes, evolves, responds to new developments in the world, such as globalization, technology and channels for communication. Take texting, for instance. Who had ever heard of SMS language (also known as textese) 15 years ago? As they say, DBEYR – but with the pace of change in lingo, it might be more apt to say Don’t Believe Anything You Can’t Read without a decoder or a teenager by your side.

But while all that’s been going on, punctuation marks seem to have remained exactly the same. Your commas, your question marks, your semicolons.

Wait!

Are there still semicolons? I’m trying to remember the last time I saw one.

Oh, right! It was in a winky smiley 😉

These textual emoticons looked for a while to be the last hope for modernization of the staid old stable of punctuation marks. Wildly creative usage of colons, parentheses, dashes and such, in fanciful combinations, sprang from the thumbs of smartphone users to cover the full spectrum of human emotions. Happiness, sadness, horror, playfulness, skepticism, boredom, and embarrassment.

It was like a punctuation mark party.

The stiff-upper-lip regiment of symbols had finally been freed from the constraints of their grammatical duties. And they went wild *\o/*

But alas, it may have been a short parole from guard duty. As soon as the punctuation marks became the life of the party, about a million techie designers began to churn out character sets of full-colour emoticons to replace them: facial expressions covering every nuance of emotion in every skin tone, clapping hands, devil faces, thumbs up, skulls, cats with hearts for eyes.

They made the lowly, home-made emoticons that were cobbled together from punctuation marks look like kindergarten stick figures 😦

(By the way, you can’t even represent emoticons the old-fashioned way using punctuation marks in a lot of current software – including WordPress; they are subjected to a kind of technological forced-retirement and automatically replaced with graphics.)

How long will it be before punctuation marks are once again relegated to enforcement of literary laws? Doing jobs like halting sentences. Or sentence fragments.

Once again, they’ll have to get their jollies by chastely separating independent clauses. Fastidious writers know that clauses can’t be trusted if left alone together in close proximity; they have a tendency to lose all control and become a run-on sentence.

Do punctuation marks question their lot in life?

Well, it probably does give them pause.

But once in a while (although it must be added that these occasions are becoming rarer), they do get to declare their enthusiasm! Or surprise!

If you’re a writer, I have a request of you: please be kind to punctuation marks. After all, they’re senior citizens, so they deserve some respect.

You’ve probably noticed that some of them don’t get out much anymore. For instance, the semicolon is almost completely restricted to non-fiction these days, especially dry reports, academic papers and legal documents. They used to gambol across the pages of literature back in their glory days, but today they aren’t running with the artsy crowd.

The truth is, most punctuation marks don’t get to have much fun, unless they find themselves a poet, or perhaps an experimental novelist.

And the shameful problem of punctuation mark abuse has proliferated in recent times. Terrible things are being done to dashes, you might have noticed. Commas are often jammed into one overcrowded sentence with wanton disregard for their comfort. At the same time, lonely colons have been seen wandering the page, looking for something to do. Even editors have been charged and convicted of casual cruelty or neglect.

So the next time you’re at the keyboard, give a thought to the lives and livelihoods of punctuation marks. Be supportive. Remember they’re still coming down from that emoticon party and are likely to be a bit sensitive.

There’s more than one English

language-bubbles

Silk’s Post #122 — Is English the world’s viral language? It’s spoken by 400 million people as a first language, and by another 800 million as a second language. It’s the official language, by international treaty, for aeronautical and maritime communications. It’s the dominant language on the Internet (55% of top websites compared to less than 10% for the next most-used language). It’s the global language of international business, with one study by the British Council reporting that by 2020, two billion people will be studying it. Some have charged English with linguistic imperialism because of its impact on other languages, including language death.

How the language of a tiny nation-state with only .009% of the world’s current population became the lingua franca of the planet is a subject for history scholars. What I’m interested in is what English’s ungovernable spread and variation means to English language writers today.

It doesn’t take an English professor or student of linguistics to make this simple observation: the English language is a bit of a mess.

In its odyssey from the colonial era that spread it like a virus across the continents to its modern predominance, English has evolved in hundreds of different directions. Perhaps it is the language’s ability to mutate in Darwinian fashion that has made it the fittest survivor. It has adapted to different tongues and climes to become a whole family of variants, each unique but all (relatively) comprehensible to each other.

There is a movement to corral all these dialects, to reshape them to conform to a standard “International English,” also called “Global English” or (in one of the least elegant words ever coined in the language) “Globish.”

But good luck on that. Despite the best efforts of grammarians and lexicographers over the centuries, living languages love to defy rules the way children love to jump in mud puddles wearing their best shoes.

So, when an English speaking writer sits down to write a novel, it’s a fair question to ask: Which English will be used?

I don’t just mean the spelling difference between “colour” and “color” or “programme” and “program”. As an American-born writer transplanted to Canada 45 years ago, spelling variation has been a continuing hitch in my writing style, like a small limp. Canada, forever caught between the old world and the new world, has retained some aspects of the Queen’s English while adopting others from American usage. So: colour, not color. But program, not programme. You just have to memorize them, like the times tables. Then there are many Canadianisms – eh, hoser, pogey, zed, serviette, loonie, toonie, double-double, kerfuffle, give’r, and the picturesque fill your boots – which I now forget sound foreign to my friends in the US.

But those are more the punchlines of jokes about the difference between Canucks and Yanks than fundamental differences in culturally-specific syntax. Yet, real and profound differences do exist, and they are critical to the story world and voice of a book. Because when people talk differently, they also think differently. See differently. Even act differently.

Language usage – whether narrative or dialogue – telegraphs the world view on which the story is built, reveals setting and social structure, hints at history and backstory, conveys lifestyle and belief systems, and sets the pace and mood of the book.

Sometimes it’s stylistically obvious, like the antiquated language of a historical novel, the dialect of an ethnic or cultural group, or the street slang of an underclass. All these are harder to do than they seem, the most common mistake being a heavy hand. The natural voice in the reader’s head is likely to “speak” in relatively standard English, and readers can get annoyed or exhausted when continually forced to interpret a “foreign” language. If they have to keep stopping to figure out what the patois means, you’ve gone too far and they’ve probably already escaped to water their geraniums or turn on their TV.

Sometimes, however, it’s the subtle shading of English usage that creates a unique and vivid theatre of the mind. These are the books that transport readers and make them feel they’ve slid into a different, memorable, world. A world where they’re both a visitor and a native at the same time. These are the stories that make readers say I felt like I was right there.

It’s easy to assume that this is achieved mostly through skillful description and those telling details the writing books try to teach. But a lot of it is how the writer uses language.

I think of the languid pacing and reflective mood that characterize many of the best novels set in the South, for instance. There’s a kind of underlying nostalgia, a sense of past days of glory contrasted with the humid dissolution of the present, that colours stories by authors like William Faulkner, Pat Conroy or James Lee Burke. You can hear it in language that flows like slow beads of sweat on a hot day. In Gillian Flynn’s spectacularly successful Gone Girl, the change in mood from the fast-paced New York setting to the drowsy Missouri small town where the characters’ world comes apart is subtly enhanced by the shifting texture of the language the writer chooses, like a suit of clothes, for each place.

Or think about the indelible mark left on modern literature by the revolutionary use of language introduced by the “hard boiled” detective story. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – and later natural successors like Mickey Spillane, Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard – crafted a whole genre that was characterized as much by its spare, brutal use of language as by its subject matter.

Am I really just talking about style? Well, maybe. That’s a big term and it covers a lot of territory. But I do think the mutations that have allowed the English language to adapt to different cultures, and different perceptions of reality, may go deeper than the term “style” might suggest. When does the elasticity of English stretch beyond its “standard” form and spawn truly distinct versions? Versions one needs to be conversant in to truly understand the stories of its speakers?

Imagine, for instance, a conversation between an English professor at Eton and a Chicago hip-hop street dancer. Are they really speaking the same language at all? Could they carry on any sort of meaningful conversation? I realize that such a scenario in a novel is, well, remote at best. It sounds more like a comedy sketch. But some of the best storytelling happens when people from “worlds apart” get smashed together on the page.

Telling stories like that – even when the language contrast is more subtle – is the job of the writer-as-translator.

So, be deliberate when you pick your language from the many Englishes that exist.

Or drive the language police nuts, and make up your own!