Avoiding Murder on the Internet: Making Writing Worthwhile

Yep. Nup. Nothin’. No one. Sort of. Dunno. Nowhere. Good. That’s about the extent of it. Your average teenager’s vocabulary as captured cleverly by songwriter Peter Denahy in his song Sort of Dunno Nothin’. Parents all over the world bemoan their offsprings’ metamorphosis from bubbly, verbose toddler to mumbly inarticulate teen. Yet it is a mistake to accuse the teenager of being unintelligible simply because he doesn’t say much. Listen to a politician, call customer service or, particularly, read the web and you will quickly discover that saying a lot does not necessarily make for comprehensibility either.

When my daughters were younger, they asked a lot of questions. Two favourites were "what makes the wind blow?" and the perennial "what makes the sky blue?”. Having a science background, it wasn’t the technical aspects of these questions that challenged me. It was my daughters’ limited vocabularies.

Statistically the girls probably had around 1,500 to 2,500 words in their vocabularies at the age of five. This compares with a typical adult's vocabulary, after leaving the teenage cave, of about 20,000 words. To answer their questions I really had to keep things simple. But it could be done. Sometimes I surprised myself, but I was generally able to provide a satisfactory answer to the girls whilst staying within the covers of their limited personal dictionaries.

So why do we adults need all those extra words? Superficially, this seems like a ridiculous question.

We need extra words in order to be efficient with our communication. Many of them summarise concepts it would be just too hard to explain in full every time. Why would an accountant want to refer to the 'amount remaining after expenses have been subtracted from revenues' when he could simply say 'profit'? Why would a chef want 'to remove the browned bits of food from the bottom of a pan after sautéing' when she could just 'deglaze'?

We also need extra words to provide subtle distinctions in meaning: ‘annoy’ is different from ‘harass’ is different from ‘bait’. If nothing else these distinctions make language more interesting.

What we do not need these extra words for is padding, obfuscation or euphemism. We do not need them as a linguistic tear gas to disguise intended meaning and cause confusion in their audience. We do not need them to provide camouflage for the powerful but ignorant. And we do not need them as ammunition for lazy writers to spray about without regard for the lexical harm they may do.

Yet all too often these roles are exactly what they play.

George Orwell bemoaned that “modern writing ... consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug”. That was in 1946. If Orwell can hear the 2009 politician or browse the World Wide Web from his station in the afterlife, he must be banging his head against the nearest cloud.

The secret to worthwhile communication - and particularly writing - is not a literary mind. It is taking the time to think. It is thinking about the meaning of the words used and the meaning intended as a whole. It is thinking about what has been written and carefully revising it before sending it out or posting it.

And if all of that sounds like too much effort, I suggest you take a crumpled page out of the nearest teenager’s lunch-stained notebook: if you have nothing worthwhile to say, say nothin’.