I was driving home from work, sitting at a stop light, and noticed the man in front of me carrying on a somewhat animated conversation on his cell phone. He wasn't doing anything illegal--he was talking hands free (except that he was waiving his hands around a bit). But it occurred to me that this guy, driving an older model Saturn and wearing a beat up baseball cap, was just the kind of guy who would rarely talk on the phone before the advent of cell phones. Now, like this guy, everyone seems to talk all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. Seriously.
I STILL don't own a cell phone. I don't want to talk. Why? Well, there's not very much I'd have to say to anyone that's so urgent it can't wait until I can send an email or see the person up close and personal. And sometimes it's nice to have a quiet, peaceful interlude when I can just think about things without interruption.
Did you see the news the other day about the Plain Writing Act? In case you missed it, there's now a law that requires governmental agencies to write their publications in plain language so the public can understand what's written, instead of throwing in all the legal gobbledegook we've seen in the past. Perhaps it won't surprise you that the government also wrote a 118 page guide telling itself what language to use and what language should no longer be used.
I'm certainly not adverse to documents that are easier to understand. Even with my background working in the law and, more particularly, with privileged health care information, when I recently received a HIPAA notification and tried to read it, I didn't understand at least half of it. So, yes, I think some reform is necessary. Language shouldn't be convoluted. Notices meant to inform and advise should actually DO that--inform and advise, not confuse.
But you know what bugs me? I don't want to see our language dumbed down. There's beauty in words, and I don't want to see the written word diminished.
I read a little of that 118 page guide. It said to use contractions in writing. That goes contrary to everything I've ever been taught when it comes to any kind of formal writing. Maybe I'm just a dinosaur. The guide went on to recommend documents be written as we speak.
Have you listened to the way we speak now? Really, we don't do very well. I guess we speak well enough to get our general ideas across, but I can't tell you how many times I've cringed when I've been watching TV and heard news reporters use the wrong words. And they don't even realize it! I always wonder what kind of education they've had--speaking in public is their JOB; is it too much to expect them to do it well? Or at least above average? There's a commercial currently running on television, and I think it's for a cell phone provider, where a guy refers to the "white elephant in the room." What a mixed metaphor! And how does that kind of thing make it past editing?
Okay, so I'm an English snob. But it's my language and I've been writing it for a long time now. And it's my JOB to do it fairly well. But I don't speak as well as I write. People rarely do. From years of transcribing dictation, I know that the spoken word almost always needs to be cleaned up when it's written down, because the written word and the spoken word are never quite the same.
Yes, I think we can write plainly so that what we write is easier to understand. But I also think we should strive to speak better and expand our vocabulary. How about legislating clarity in the SPOKEN word? No, I guess I can't truly expect politicians to get behind that kind of legislature. But maybe if we are all just a little quieter now and then, we'd have time to think before we speak.