Volume 9 #7 July
Some time ago I was visiting a classroom of middle-school kids where the teacher would insist that every answer she got be phrased in complete sentences. After watching how this required the kids to actually talk in English, I wanted to pump my fist up and down enthusiastically and holler at her, “YOU GO, GIRL!”
But it was a parochial school and the teacher was a nun, so I restricted my enthusiasm to a nice compliment after class on a most effective teaching technique. I probably feel more strongly about this than the average teacher because my gang’s conversation was always characterized by half-finished sentences, phrases, and bits and pieces of language. In fact, habitually talking in strings of unfinished sentences is often a tell-tale clue if you are looking for dyslexia. I even heard a well-known speaker give a lecture about dyslexia, during which she actually left at least half of her sentences unfinished. I was already doing some private diagnosis when she told the audience cheerfully that she was, herself, dyslexic. “No kidding, Sweetheart,” I muttered to myself.
Use of chopped-up English has been exacerbated by technology and the use of such things as text-messaging -- even e-mail. But when Shakespeare said that brevity is the soul of wit, he wasn’t thinking of text-messaging or fractured sentences. He was objecting to its opposite, verbosity- the tendency to expound in a paragraph what could be covered in a sentence or two. (Weather men come immediately to mind). Among the worst offenders are people in State Boards of Education, who regularly send out to hapless school committee members thick documents of such turgid repetitious prose that you wonder how they ever passed English 105 in college. I often thought that if I were an English teacher, I would assign such a document for homework, with the highest mark going to the shortest version that included all the facts.
Henry Mencken, one of the most famous authors of his time, and a card-carrying atheist, said that a writer should know the King James version of the Bible from end to end. Why? Because a one word reference to something in the Bible might save tons of explanation. Describing the misery of a teen-aged girl over her face full of zits? The poor kid must feel just like Job. No amplification needed.
When it comes to picking a vivid word over some circumlocution, there is one group of people for whom the above advice does not necessarily apply. It is us Golden Oldies. If Grandpa wants to comfort his pretty granddaughter about her pimples, he won’t say that she probably feels just like Job. That is not because he doesn’t know the Bible. It’s just that he can’t remember the guy’s name.