Many people think of language as kind of a label maker. The more labels (words) you know, the more successful you’re likely to be. I’ve known people who always carried a dictionary with them.
Certainly those people were on to something important. A friend of mine who was a career counselor told me that a high score on a vocabulary test is one of the most reliable predictors of future success.
But language is much more than a label maker. It’s a critical thinking tool that sorts and classifies everything we know, think about, and experience. A person with a large vocabulary can make subtle distinctions that lead to a more precise understanding of the world around us. The results are better thinking habits and wiser decisions.
Great writers (of course I’m thinking about Bernard Shaw!) are masters at using language to challenge readers and theatergoers to think more deeply about concepts we assume we understand – but probably don’t.
Think for a moment about the difference between grammar and diction. Many people (even some English teachers I’ve known) always lump them together. But diction (defined as “word choice”) has nothing to do with grammar (the deep structure of language).
What do you call the hot caffeinated beverage that many people drink with their breakfast? Answers might include “java,” “joe,” “cuppa,” and “coffee.” You probably use one word from that list most of the time. The same is true of children’s games (“hopscotch” or “potsy”?), money (“currency” or “bucks”?), sleep (“catch some Z’s” or “crash”?) – and countless other everyday words.
Those preferences have nothing to do with grammar. In fact many of the writing problems that English instructors and editors shake their heads over have nothing to do with grammar. Examples include clumsy sentences (“He expressed that he had a hope for a continuing friendship of a non-romantic nature”) and colloquialisms (“ain’t,” “cuss”).
If an instructor or editor returns your work heavily marked with a red pen, don’t assume that you need a course in formal grammar. The real problem could be diction errors – and diagramming sentences and doing workbook exercises won’t solve it.
Here’s some advice for you:
- Take that feedback seriously: study it, ask for explanations, and learn as much as you can from it
- Read, read, read – you’ll effortlessly absorb some of the writing practices of great authors
- Ask a trusted friend to help you identify and correct diction problems in your conversation
- Aim for an easy and natural style in your writing
I’m going to take a minute or two to expand that last point (and this is especially for high school and college students). I’m often asked to help young people with homework and college application essays. These are students who study hard and do well in their academic studies.
But at least half the time what I’m asked to read is pretentious gobbledygook. Mind you, these are young men and women who speak with perfect clarity and impressive intelligence. But put a pen in their hands, or put them in front of a computer, and – OMG!
If you have an instructor who berates you endlessly about your writing, try putting your ideas into simple, straightforward sentences. Then show the result to your instructor and ask for suggestions about the next step. Very likely you’ll discover that using your own voice and choosing everyday words (not, of course, slang!) will work perfectly well.
Do me the favor of experimenting with my exhortations. (Translation: please try it!)