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THOMPSON: Keep it simple

February 27, 2017 - 5:00 PM

 


OPINION


I've always loved words...a passion that comes in handy as a writer. Between third and fourth grades I read Webster's New Collegiate dictionary cover to cover. Lousy plot, but it opened a door for me that has never shut.

I love the precision of the right words at the right times. I love onomatopoeia...how some words sound like what they describe...oink and choo-choo. I love similes and metaphors...even mixed metaphors. I love malaprops...when they're intentional, like Alcoholics Unanimous.

I love synonyms, antonyms and homonyms. I love elegant words...denouement and serendipitous. I love words that communicate...clearly. Simple words that trump elaborate words...use rather than utilize. And on occasion, elaborate words that win over simple words...faux pas instead of mistake on matters of etiquette.

And some words I love simply because they are music to the ear...lilting, like camaraderie and quintessential. I love words we adopt from elsewhere...like persona non grata, fait accompli and, once again, faux pas. I am - unashamedly - a hopeless romantic when it comes to words.

There is a special category of words that I truly love...collective nouns. Collective nouns refer to a group of things taken as a whole.  Some are familiar and mundane...flock of sheep and herd of cattle. But some are simply and wonderfully wild...and I try to use them whenever I can.

This isn't always easy in day-to-day life. I cannot imagine my butcher's face should I ask whether he had a warren of rabbits or a passel of hogs for me to pick from.

Some of my favourite collective nouns...most refer to animals...sound whimsically odd since  opportunities to use them are rare. An ambush of tigers. A bouquet of pheasants. A congress of baboons. An exaltation of larks. A dropping of pigeons (easy to see how that one came about). A prickle of porcupines. A charm of hummingbirds.

Most wordsmiths readily admit that communications has dumbed down in recent years. People using social media shun words like non sequitur and peevish and dilettante. Donald Trump's Tweets are often non sequiturs and make him sound like a peevish dilettante. See how easy it is to use interesting, precise words when you're not constrained by 140 characters. Even so, now we have everyone's run-on Tweets that carry over to two or three messages. Sad.

Seriously, good communications is fast becoming a lost art in our culture. The driving need for high approval ratings and large audiences nudges journalists and TV producers to write simply - and not always in a good way. Often, the intellectual complexity of a given topic suffers when all issues are reduced to simple sentences. Usually, accuracy and clarity are among the casualties.

There are more than one million words in the English language...with the typical person using between 5,000 and 10,000 words. A typical college graduate has a vocabulary of upwards of 80,000 words. Words - simple and elaborate - are the foundation of good communication.

If you want to see great writing and the skilled use of words, read three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman's Op-Ed columns in the New York Times. He deftly weaves simplicity and complexity in every column, every week. 

The audience should determine word use if you want to communicate effectively. I don't talk to my friends the same way as I talk with Sasha, one of our Russian Wolf Hounds. Smart dog, but his vocabulary is limited...and mostly centred on food. Similarly, magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic target readers differently than your local daily newspaper...not only in words...but in what they write about.

Regardless, good writing and speaking have the same purposes...inform, imagine, influence, meet social expectations and express feelings. Everyone's aim should be to do this as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Toiling as a writer in New York City 35 years ago, I got to know Harry Gray, then CEO of United Technologies. Harry was twice my age but he, too, had started his career as a journalist and we had a certain kinship.

Like most big companies, United Technologies retained an ad agency...but Harry was a talented and prolific writer and wrote a series of ads that any copywriter would have been proud to claim. He wrote one entitled Keep It Simple - which ran full-page in The Wall Street Journal - in a matter of a few minutes. It was one of my favourites then...and still is.

KEEP IT SIMPLE
Strike three.
Get your hand off my knee.
You’re overdrawn.
Your horse won.
Yes.
No.
You have the account.
Walk.
Don’t walk.
Mother’s dead.
Basic events require simple language.
Idiosyncratically euphuistic eccentricities are the promulgators of triturable obfuscation.
What did you do last night?
Enter into a meaningful romantic involvement
or fall in love?
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
The upper part of a hog’s hind leg with two oval bodies encased in a shell laid by a female bird
or ham and eggs?
David Belasco, the great American theatrical producer once said, “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.”

And with that advice, this seems like a good place to end.


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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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