War of the Words

In recent days, I have become entangled in numerous written altercations. Not attacks on me – but I have been made privy to conversations that have left people in my world feeling professionally or personally maligned. And it left me thinking how powerful the written word is, how easily misunderstood the written word is, and how dangerous it can be.

There are loads of amusing memes on the internet pointing out the importance of correct punctuation:lets_eat_grandma_punctuation_saves_lives_1024x1024

and grammar:grammar_o_892749

But the written word needs more than good grammar and perfect punctuation to make it palatable.

The legal fraternity has mastered the art of accurate communication. While we may bemoan the necessity for legalese, its essential purpose is to avoid confusion whenever possible. Occasionally clever little barristers find ways and means to search out loopholes for clients, but I would wager a bet those loopholes are closed quick as a flash next time. Legalese however, is mundane and boring and sometimes borders on the incomprehensible for those of us without legal training. So much so, that again, the internet has generated amusing posts to entertain the masses who cannot quickly comprehend the meaningless babble:

Accident Report

The party of the first part hereinafter known as Jack … and … The party of the second part hereinafter known as Jill … Ascended or caused to be ascended an elevation of undetermined height and degree of slope, hereinafter referred to as “hill”.

Whose purpose it was to obtain, attain, procure, secure, or otherwise, gain acquisition to, by any and/or all means available to them, a receptacle or container, hereinafter known as “pail”, suitable for the transport of a liquid whose chemical properties shall be limited to hydrogen and oxygen, the proportions of which shall not be less than or exceed two parts for the first mentioned element and one part for the latter. Such combination will hereinafter be called “water”.

On the occasion stated above, it has been established beyond reasonable doubt that Jack did plunge, tumble, topple or otherwise be caused to lose his footing in a manner that caused his body to be thrust into a downward direction.

As a direct result of these circumstances, Jack suffered fractures and contusions of his cranial regions. Jill, whether due to Jack’s misfortune or not, was known to also tumble in similar fashion after Jack. (Whether the term “after” shall be interpreted in a spatial or time passage sense has not been determined.)

Or to be more succinct…

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water

Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after

Which begs the question, how do we communicate with each other in a written format, without causing hurt or confusion?

I was walking with a friend recently who mentioned her teenage daughter insists she use emoticons in text messages because otherwise they sound terse. Somehow, “What time will you be home?” comes across as an irritable demand, whereas, “What time will you be home?! ? xx” comes across as loving concern. When in fact the tone of voice from the sender may well be the same on both occasions. Some of us are more inclined than others to be elaborate with our exclamation marks and emoticons, but it doesn’t mean those less emotive people are grumpier. They may just be more succinct.

It cannot be argued the written word has no tone of voice – it most certainly does. 

When we are introduced to a character in a novel, we not only picture how they look – without visual clues – but we also imbue them with a personality that comes in part from the tone of voice they have been given by the author. Clever writing makes it easy to establish meaning and connect accurately with the story and characters. Poor communication can leave us floundering and wondering what the writer is talking about, or worse still, we may misinterpret the message altogether.

Speech – be it written or oral – has a musical flow to it, and this provides tone of voice. The emphasis we place on particular words, and the pauses and rests in particular places, allow us to glean the information within. There are countless examples of how we can alter the meaning of a sentence by placing the emphasis on different words.

This one is a perfect illustration:

  • I didn’t say he borrowed my book.
  • didn’t say he borrowed my book.
  • I didn’t say he borrowed my book.
  • I didn’t say he borrowed my book.
  • I didn’t say he borrowed my book.
  • I didn’t say he borrowed my book.
  • I didn’t say he borrowed my book.

The varying emphasis alters the tone of voice.

The spoken word is usually accompanied by a lot of non-verbal cues that we use to ascertain the meaning and authenticity of the speaker – body language, eye contact and posture to name a few. In fact my repeated internet searches show approximately two thirds of our interpretation of oral language comes from non-verbal cues.

In written communication we have none of this. There is no tone of voice to offer emphasis on particular words or to convey emotion. There are no visual clues to establish intent. 

There are only words. Powerful words.

Clearly it is impractical and unwieldy to constantly use exclamation marks, emoticons and font variations in an attempt to convey our meaning more accurately. In this modern world, the written word is something most of us use continuously throughout our days – emails, social media, text messages, hand written letters, and any other form I haven’t remembered. We need to master the art of conveying intent with our words.

Our illustrious leaders can find themselves in the spotlight for their communication style. Without sparking a political debate, consider the following two responses to the death of former Cuban Prime Minister, Fidel Castro.

“At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people.  We know that this moment fills Cubans – in Cuba and in the United States – with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

US President Barack Obama

“Fidel Castro is dead!”

US President Elect, Donald Trump

I offer no opinion on whether either statement is right or wrong, better or worse, good or bad, but it is clear as day that one is verbose and one is not. As a reader, you will automatically imbue each of these statements with a personal bias. Most people naturally prefer the statement most closely aligned with their political beliefs. Some people may be appalled at both statements while others have no problem with either. And yet we will all have an opinion. Trump’s statement might be considered a gleeful shout of triumph or a shocked voice of concern. Without context, we cannot know. Obama’s statement could be considered political mumbo jumbo that says nothing with a whole lot of words, or a respectful and diplomatic response to a foreign leader’s passing. Without context, we cannot know.

Most of us are not subject to constant media and public critiques of our writings, but that may well leave us more apt to speedily send an email or a tweet without careful consideration of the potential interpretation. And the consequences are not always pretty. Friendships can be shattered. Careers ended. Families fractured. Just by saying – or not saying – something that is then taken to have a meaning you may not have intended. The written word is quite often eternal as well. While we may constantly remind our children that posting things on Facebook is “forever”, as adults I think we sometimes forget that fact. We don’t need to be writing a piece of literary journalism for the New York Times, or generating a journal article announcing a scientific breakthrough, to get into hot water. Simple tweets, Facebook updates, website comments, text messages and emails can all cause a fracture that is difficult to heal.

So my friends – near and far – consider your words wisely when next you construct a sentence. And believe me when I say, I understand the irony in sharing this little piece with written words ? xx