As Billy said, ‘Brevity is … wit.’

The other day, Ralph Fiennes, the famous British film actor who also loves stage acting, said he does not so much love the current direction of language.

“We’re in a world of truncated sentences, soundbites and Twitter,’ Fiennes said, being quoted for a soundbite.  “(Language) is being eroded — it’s changing. Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.”

And he’s worried about the relevancy of Shakespeare going forward now that he says he sees young drama students are having more trouble with the Bard than those a few generations ago would have (one wonders if Fiennes really remembers how well those young students did generations ago). He’s worried about how you perform plays with a lot of words with multiple syllables when the direction of language is more Hemingway than Faulkner, read, spoken and understood.

I used to be with Mr. Fiennes on this, and in college, was really worried that that kind of written language would be the equivalent of Newspeak from George Orwell’s 1984. For example, the text, “I love you,” is soul-baring, while “luv u ;)” is common, casual, and expresses nothing. It’s not even “double-plus ungood,” as a character from Orwell’s novel would be expected to say, it’s “++ungud.”

It’s not that you’d have to censor people anymore; they wouldn’t be able to articulate anything meaningful, let alone seditious. (That was my thinking.)

But, that’s a very college sort of thought to have. And you see writers who have just graduated, even journalists supposedly trained to be concise, want to write using the biggest word that comes to mind, maybe even because it’s the first. School trains you to prove that you’re intelligent and educated more than that you’re actually a good writer or know what you’re talking about. “First thought, best thought,” — but only if your first thought is actually good at communicating.

Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, “Never make use of a sesquipedalian word when a diminutive one will suffice”?

Or was he the one who said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with great-big words, and they are often good to know, especially when not to use them. Twitter, in common usage, may be a gift for people to concisely say stupid and empty things. But that’s what most people say anyway. The longshoreman philosopher of the mid-20th century, Eric Hoffer, said there wasn’t an idea that could be expressed in 200 words.

“But the writer must know precisely what he wants to say,” Hoffer cautioned. “If you have nothing to say and want badly to say it, then all the words in all the dictionaries will not suffice.”

You may need more than one tweet of 140 characters to get the full thing across, but you’re also going to make every letter count. You’re going to spill over the limit and go back and look at what you’ve written. Have I expressed this in the most effective way possible? Why am I wasting space on adjectives when I could use a more inherently evocative word (“walked without hurry” vs. “sauntered”). If someone reads only this message, how can I make this memorable and impactful on its own?

Writing has always been easy; so too chatting and tweeting. But good writing is always heavy labor, it’s just the form has changed now.

The future belongs to the aphorist. And I’m OK with that.


The art of communication is an imperfect science

The other day, I was talking to a friend and we were arguing a bit about communication.

Now (and you may already know this), professional communicators have a tendency to do a very poor job communicating in their personal lives.

But we were doing pretty well, he and I, or at least I thought so, and the gist of what he was saying was this:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had inherent telepathy – not reading minds, but, like, being able to send a thought completely and be understood completely,” he said.

Continue reading “The art of communication is an imperfect science”

‘We the People’ are a frightening and ignorant beast

For today’s column, I have to give due credit to my colleague Nathaniel Miller who writes the Friday column ‘Ramble On.’

In his most recent article, he aired his support for Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy movements around the country, but clarified his position in an online comment after someone asked him whether he supported the Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010 in the same way.

Continue reading “‘We the People’ are a frightening and ignorant beast”

It’s a good idea to put your name to (some of) what you say

The other day, made the switchover to a public comment system based, primarily, on the social media giant Facebook.

For the most part, I’m happy with it. As a practical matter, there have been less comments by volume, but the sound-to-noise ratio of what’s come in has been considerably higher; as people adjust to New Things, hopefully that will continue.

The shift represents the end of an era for the website, and may be part of the ongoing trend to “publicify” the Internet, largely because of social media.

Continue reading “It’s a good idea to put your name to (some of) what you say”

Actually, this one can be read without irony

The other day The Onion, self-styled as America’s finest news source, broke a story starting with the tweet:

BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside the Capitol Building.

To some of you reading out there, probably most of you online, you’re already starting to laugh because you know that’s not describing something that really happened. For the rest, you’re now even more confused as to why a newspaper intentionally reporting false information as fact should be funny.

Continue reading “Actually, this one can be read without irony”