The need to make language clear and fresh By Ian McDonald
Stabroek News
August 25, 2002

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I have written ad infinitum about the importance of using clear, accurate language in explaining the problems that face a nation like Guyana. We are too often treated to stale metaphors, continually re-cycled phrases, and lazy writing of all kinds as we seek enlightenment in these complex and challenging times.

A scrupulously honest writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself five questions: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? Could I put it more shortly? But what actually happens is that too many shirk this duty and simply throw the mind open to let the ready-made phrases come crowding in.

Probably this is why political writing of all kinds is generally very bad writing. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to express itself in a lifeless, repetitive style. The appropriate, approved, expressions emerge mechanically but somehow there is no feeling that an individual brain is involved as there would be if the writer was choosing the words for himself. Stale language is as useless as muddled language.

The trouble is that this sort of writing gradually leads to a reduced state of consciousness in the writer itself. A sort of fog descends upon the intellect.

This debased language becomes all too easy, convenient, and automatic. And, of course, the fog spreads from the communicator to the crowd and you are soon in danger of having a befuddled society.

In the old communist societies this sort of language derived from actual policy and careful planning which had the aim of inducing political conformity throughout the society. In our case debasement of the use of language is inadvertent, unplanned. It happens because people who make the news are themselves so preoccupied with trying to solve problems on the ground, and in managing crisis after crisis, that they have little time to explain what is being done in vivid, new, thought-provoking language. And the hard-pressed journalist, fed with stale orthodoxies, breathes a sigh of relief because it saves him precious time and trouble to be able to churn these out, instead of trying to interpret what is going on for himself and thinking hard how to express it best.

The situation is exacerbated by the terrible decline in standards of literacy in Guyana. This is an especially pernicious aspect of the deteriorated educational system. Schools are not teaching the basic skills of reading and writing as well as they used to do. At the same time children in their homes are less and less exposed to books and more and more exposed to television which itself focuses almost exclusively on adults and entertainment and very little on children and education.

More and more of our children are growing up with little ability and practice in reading or writing. This will be a handicap all their lives. The capacity to learn and understand any subject increases or languishes to the extent that you can or cannot read properly and express yourself clearly. This is fundamental and it is astonishing that our top educators have not done more to close this gaping breach in the educational system which lets in such floods of ignorance and incomprehension in the society.

However, I do not intend to write in this column about simple illiteracy. God knows, I have written often enough about that desperately important subject and will, I am sure, do so again. But now I want to consider a kind of semi-literacy which is as appalling as illiteracy itself.

The following sentence, taken from a book entitled Plato etc: The Problem of Philosophy and their Resolution by Mr Roy Bhaskar, is a prime example of the sort of utter nonsense which passes for English in a multitude of books and articles these days.

“Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal - of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm; of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psychosomatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalance, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic...”

The sentence, which goes on for a further 55 words, is harder to follow after this point.

This is pretentious gibberish. This is jargon gone mad. This is worse than illiteracy. This is how it happens. The uneducated are content to use their smaller, yet perfectly effective, vocabulary, together with their rudimentary, yet equally satisfactory, grasp of a working grammar. The well educated can deploy wider knowledge of words and a deeper understanding of the use of them.

But the half-educated specialists despise those who have never had their own educational advantages and are therefore unwilling to limit themselves to a vocabulary and syntax ordinary people can understand. The result is that these show-offs of undigested knowledge write the sort of nonsense quoted above and produce countless books and articles of the same inert indecipherability.

This is not a small matter. Language badly used is dehumanizing. It corrupts not only the beautiful, infinitely various, and unique language we have inherited but it pollutes life: when words are emptied of meaning, meaning itself fades.

And when meaning fades confusion and incomprehension reign. In a very real sense preserving sense and clarity and freshness in language involves preserving the character and integrity of a nation.