More than once, I’ve been taken to task about my language. It’s been suggested to me that my word choices leave people confused, or that my sentence structures — even in plain speech — are “too smart.” That is, uniformly condescending to my listeners.
I just browsed some of my writing from my early undergrad days, and I was astonished at how plain it was. Short sentences. General-reference errors. Common words. What happened?
Two things, I think. The first was in-depth training in a foreign language. Having minored in Latin — including 10 hours at the graduate level — I was exposed to all aspects of formal grammar, even things that are obscure even to professional grammarians. I was also required to write Latin using all three dominant historical styles of that language: the simplicity of the early and middle Republic, the rich complexity of the early Imperial period, the inconsistency and orthographic chaos of the early medieval era.
Today, English speakers increasingly resort to relatively short sentences with a simple subject-verb-object grammatical structure. More and more, even native speakers rely on a small, common vocabulary, drawing on auxiliary parts of speech (including prepositional phrases and appositives) to flesh out meaning. It wasn’t always like this, of course; a reading of 18th-century prose, for example, will numb the mind with its serpentine sentences and obscure words and incredible density of ideas-per-column-inch that leaves contemporary readers perplexed.
Languages evolve over time, and my exposure to the varied dominant styles of Latin over 1,500 years of evolution undeniably impacted how I speak and write.
The other influencer was newspaper writing. For years, I had to churn out a fully reasoned and entirely self-contained editorial using a fixed number of column inches (usually, equivalent to about 600 words). And at least once per week, I had to write an on-demand bylined opinion column of varying length to fit the space left at the last moment by less-than-reliable staff columnists. Sounds easy … until you try it.
With blogging, there’s no word-count limit on post lengths. There’s no requirement to use tight, concise prose. No challenge to use the right word in the right context, even when the word selected isn’t especially common. No points are awarded for an elegant turn of phrase or finely balanced complex construction.
Some habits die hard. Circumstances forced my language patterns to change and my vocabulary to expand, and I’ve had to use thee new attributes to be successful. When I use “big words” or speak in semicolons, it’s not to insult others or to appear smart. It’s no more and no less than a function of experience, and I can’t not use the right word in the right setting than a bodybuilder can simply refuse to use 80 percent of his biceps when helping neighbors to move.
And I’m not sure that I’d want to. There’s so much richness that comes from delving into the mechanics of language, from mining the vocabulary of meaning, that to simply stop would feel almost criminal.