One thing that bugs me is when people try and defend themselves by attempting to redefine the English language.
“I think he’s a fuckwit”
Erm that’s a bit harsh, cruel, unkind, judgemental….
“No. For me, fuckwit is a compliment”
No it’s not. Check the dictionary. And don’t be surprised if you call someone a fuckwit and everyone assumes you don’t think much of that person.
“Oh you’re such a pedant”
Actually, no. We don’t know each other that well. I’ve never met that other person. So if you are going to use words around me, I’m going to assume you mean by them what most people assume them to mean, not some other definition that exists solely in your private version of English.
This is the great advantage of reading books. Slowly you accumulate a shared sense of language and its meaning that enables you to communicate effectively, rather than relying on the way words are used by the half a dozen people you drink with down the pub.
There is, of course, a world of difference between the written and the spoken word. The latter comes with all sorts of bonus features like body language and intonation. You can get away with a good deal of imprecision because your words are supplemented by a lot of other information. But if you are going to send me an email or text…then there needs to be some rigour or we may misunderstand each other. Actually, unless we have some pretty solid common ground about what words actually mean, we are going to struggle like hell, and maybe you should stick to talking to my face.
I recently read a discussion of the fact that whilst there has always been the precise language of poetry and written academic debate, which differs greatly from spoken language, there used at least to be a middle ground, a written English that compensated for lack of other cues without being over the top. The kind of English that you might get in a letter from the bank. This is slowly disappearing and people are losing contact with the richness, variety and even meaning of language. I’m not sure it’s as dire as that but I got their point.
People sometimes comment that my written style (as evidenced in this blog or emails) differs markedly from the way I talk. Well of course it bloody does. A verbal conversation is a social interaction and is a different kettle of fish. Here, the words have to do all the work. It becomes useful that there is a difference between angry, furious and irked. The written word has the potential to be far more powerful and intoxicating than a conversation in Tescos. It can also be more intense. “Write from the body” they say. This needs no explanation for me. It is also true that poetry lives and breathes in its nouns and verbs, the concrete and the active. Not in the abstract or in its adjectives. Precise, please.