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Some comments on writing

September 10, 2012
Posted at 12:23 pm

I'm currently reading Buckley: The Right Word... (the ellipsis isn't part of the title - it indicates that I've chosen to leave the rest of that loooooong title out of this post), which is a sort of anthology, drawn from William F. Buckley's works, on the use of the English language. Reading it (and I read Buckley for the sheer pleasure of reading Buckley's English) has caused me to think that a writer and a reader both ought to love the language. (As a side note, a writer who isn't a reader is, I would think, a nonexistent article. To learn to write without reading is like learning to build houses without ever learning to saw, hammer, and use a level. If there's ever been anyone in history who wrote well without ever reading, I'd be interested to meet him.)

Now not every writer will write as Buckley did. He loved not only big words, but foreign words and phrases as well (though he very seldom used anything from Spanish, a surprising thing since Spanish was his first language). Ernest Hemingway, OTOH, used foreign words only when his characters did (e.g. in For Whom the Bell Tolls, when he translated some Spanish swearing but kept some in the original language). Moreover, his words tended to be shorter, more blunt, than Buckley's. And H.P. Lovecraft (who IMO is the greatest horror writer in the history of fiction) used long words but not foreign ones, and piled adjectives atop each other in a way that would have destroyed any other author's work.

Certainly I don't write like Buckley, and couldn't if I tried, though if I ever post something when I'm in a blaze of anger you'll see plenty of big words. In the days when I went to the flame wars, I won not only because I was usually the only one actually trying to cogently argue my case, but because my vocabulary was almost always much larger than that of the person on the other end (mostly they resorted to ad hominem stuff, which may anger the recipient but proves nothing besides the brainlessness of the one doing the resorting). I just don't have that style at my command, and certainly I don't have that fund of Latin and French expressions.

But I do love the language. I love the words, and I love seeing someone use them rightly. In my everyday conversation I talk like a truck driver (e.g. "I ain't got nothin' to do with that"), but just let the person I'm talking to make me angry and I'll start forking out words like "asinine" and "ignoramus." And I tend to write better than I speak (except when I'm writing Darvin Carpenter's dialogue - and even then he usually sounds better than I do, since reproducing exactly the way both of us talk would result in incomprehensibility; what's easy to understand when you hear it becomes gibberish on the page, or the screen as the case might be).

One of the reasons I love the Nero Wolfe mysteries is I love the way Wolfe talks. I might think that it was silly of him to buy a dictionary just so that he could burn it, the volume having offended him by saying that "infer" and "imply" are interchangeable (they aren't, of course). I might think that he was being obstinately silly by insisting that in his house "contact" isn't a verb. But who else ever uses "flummery," or "gull" (not the bird), in ordinary conversation? Those are good words, and precisely because they're not common haven't lost their punch (as have several cuss words because everyone uses them as a matter of course and constantly, instead of reserving them for times when they want to impart great emphasis, which is the only plausible defense for using such's barely plausible, too).

All of us who write, whether it's poetry, novels, posts on a blog, or e-mail messages, ought to love the language, and desire to use it rightly. It's the only way we have to communicate. A shrug can mean any number of things - body language has severe limits. But by using the right words in the right way, we can communicate disgust, joy, terror, boredom...

Way back in the olden days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, in the RIME Writing conference someone who claimed to be a writer said something, I disremember what, and I replied to it. He sent back a heated response which, when you boiled it down, meant that he hadn't meant what he'd said, but the exact opposite, and he was angry that I'd replied to what he'd said rather than what he'd meant. I - somewhat heated as well - advised him that until and unless he cared enough about what he meant to actually say it, I had no way to know what he meant, and could only reply to what he did say.

To me that seems like the most painfully obvious thing on earth. I might not have been able to say it so well when I was 10, but I would have understood the principle had someone explained it to me - and, I'm sure, would have recognized that even without having thought about it I'd adopted it as my own guide to expression. The old adage is that you ought to say what you mean and mean what you say. And doing that requires that you be able to use the language rightly.

None of us would ever hire a carpenter to build us new cabinets who'd never learned how to use a tape measure. None of us would ever employ a mechanic who didn't know how to change the oil. Indeed, we'd say that the first wasn't really a carpenter, and the second wasn't any more a mechanic than he was a katydid. And yet online people write - reams, sometimes - without bothering to learn how to use words, or what the words themselves mean.

Okay, that's enough length. I could go on, but I don't care to become repetitiously redundant. :)

Robert McKay (
[T]he judges have put so many restrictions on what the police can do an' how they can do it that . . . sometimes I think the only people in the whole system who have rights are the crooks. --Darvin Carpenter
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