The Politics of Language

The role of language in politics becomes very evident during elections. For better or worse, language plays a crucial role in the entire process: in debates, speeches, on the Internet.

But what about the politics of language? To what extent is language shaped by or at least restricted or influenced by politics. In 2015 the Washington Post officially adopted the use of the singular “they” – that is, the use of the plural form of the third person to avoid awkward “he/she” or “he or she” constructions. Naturally this also includes the acceptance of the singular “their” in  place of “his/her” and “his or her” but read more about it here.

And we have all struggled to find gender neutral terms for occupations: firefighter instead of fireman or firewoman, police instead of policeman or policewoman. These are the politically correct, excuse my triteness, designations for women and men’s occupations in our newest world, or word, order.

After 9/11 there was an attempt to change French fries to freedom fries, following an attempted demotion from French to french fries too. But it appears, fortunately, that there was no permanent consensus and support for these suggestions.

Beyond words, yet another area of language has been affected, namely names. For example, the Islamic group referred to alternately as ISIS or ISIL, or simply IS, for the Islamic State has been revisited. It has been reported that certain world leaders refuse to use any of these names citing the fact that the group is not officially a “state” instead preferring to call the group by the acronym in Arabic: ‘Daesh’.

Fire biggerpng
Inflammatory language: must we fight fire with fire?

The acronym Daesh in Arabic stands for the phrase al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). In fact, the Islamic group vehemently disapproves of the word. In Arabic there are two very similar words ‘Daes’ (one who crushes something underfoot) and ‘Dahes’ (one who sows discord) which can evoke a negative image in the eyes, or at least ears, of Arabic speakers. Certain world leaders elect to use the word; in the opposite camp, threats are being made to thwart the use of the name Daesh.

Thus we English speakers are bound to acknowledge and be aware of the subtle uses of words, phrases and names that can influence readers consciously or unconsciously. But isn’t that what effective writing is all about? Responsible writing however could incorporate neutral forms to inform rather than infect, incite and ignite. English neutral in all forms seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Enough said … editors and editing

Blue plume penWriting is like shadow boxing. Editing is when the shadows fight back. Adam Copeland

There are two typos of people in this world: those who can edit and those who can’t. Jarod Kintz

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly. C.J. Cherryh

An editor is someone who separates the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff.  Adlai Stevenson

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. Thomas Jefferson.

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil. Truman Capote

There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them. Elie Wiesel

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out. Author Unknown

Red x penFor I am a bear of very little brain and long words bother me. Winnie the Pooh

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. T. S. Eliot

To make an impact, but not to impact?

Like a tidal wave, the impact of English diversity
A tidal wave, the impact of English (and editing)

Tweets and articles reporting the pet peeves of copy editors have been circulating widely and wildly during the past weeks. The annual conference of ACES, the American Copy Editors* Society, was held in Pittsburgh March 26-28. One of the standouts among editors’ pet peeves was disagreement on the use of the word impact as a verb. See link here.

This is nothing new; many stylebooks, including The Associated Press and the Financial Times, discuss the use of impact. AP says to use it sparingly; FT does not condone it. In fact, impact is not the only noun to be denied verb status by stylebooks. Also included in this group is to author. Personally, I use impact as a verb informally, but admit that I “apologize” for its use in the company of editors. I tend to agree with stylebooks about author; I feel “write” is a better choice as a verb. But I totally cringe when I hear signature used as a verb. So we each have our limits, personal levels of acceptability – our own pet peeves.

Is the use of impact as a verb such a linguistic sin? After all, the past participle form of the verb is used as an adjective, as in an impacted tooth or molar.

Actually this is probably a good time to introduce descriptivism vs prescriptivism. Or in plain language if you aren’t a language buff, what we really say and write vs what we have been told is correct. Now, I could say that I am a descriptive linguist which is basically redundant. Are there linguists who are not descriptive?

While I personally adhere to the descriptive view, I recognize the need for the prescriptive approach as well. Each and every thing properly in its place.

Do we need prescriptive rules? Probably. If we consider how unregulated English is now, and how much more so it could become, then we would do well to listen to editors’ advice. It’s like trying to hold back the classic tidal wave, but here of different forms, spellings, use of words, meanings. Maybe a little order wouldn’t hurt.

It impacted, she authored, he signatured. Can the message be understood? Yes. Is it good writing? It depends. Editors are not only concerned with the content of a message, but whether text is technically written well and flows smoothly. In truth, anyone can write. Few can write well. Editors and copy editors are there to help us all write better.

Again, the distinction is one of when and where to use which forms. We can have our local, personal, colorful English, but write formally in a consistent common standard. English is richer for the local dialects in plays, poems, literature and blogs. But remember to consider stylebooks and editors, at least when the goal is to have your writing accepted by a major publication.

*And yes, there is no apostrophe in their official name, according to their own website.

Enough said … writing and rewriting

Blue plume penIt is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book. Friedrich Nietzsche

There is no great writing, only great rewriting. Louis D. Brandeis

Of every four words I write, I strike out three. Nicolas Boileau

Omit needless words. William Strunk Jr.

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short. Henry David Thoreau

The best writing is rewriting. E. B. White

An incinerator is a writer’s best friend. Thornton Wilder

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. James A. Michener

Most of my work consisted of crossing out. Crossing out was the secret of all good writing. Mark Haddon

I hate editors, for they make me abandon a lot of perfectly good English words. Mark TwainRed x pen