Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Friday 31 May 2019

Language and Specificity

Since writing a blog, regularly, I have always kept a file full of ideas to write about. I jot them down as they occur to me. Some mornings, I simply get up and write about whatever’s on my mind, and some mornings, I refer to that list.

It’s been over a year, closer to two, since I wrote a regular blog. This morning, I had a look at the list. It was pretty revealing. It was clear that I care deeply about particular things, and write about them often. After that, I was surprised to see how topical this blog can be. I had written down ideas that now feel like ancient history, and several of the notes I’d left myself were completely impenetrable to me today.

That Man Trump (TMT) is perennially topical, often for terrible reasons. I still find it hard to accept his presence on the planet, never mind in the Whitehouse.

Today’s blog is, however, about language, and the way that we use and abuse it.

I saw an advert the other day, for hair conditioner, which had “Double as much active ingredients.” This sort of silliness irritates me. Copy-writers used to be some of the cleverest of the commercial writers, producing witty, concise, and memorable slogans and strap-lines.

The husband and I occasionally write strap-lines as exercises, one of my favourites was an idea for a shampoo ad in which soldiers are doing an assault course, in the rain. You know the sort of thing, scramble nets, climbing walls, cammo, mud, exertion. In our heads, the ad ended in the showers with the shampoo bottle and the strap-line “Fructis for a game of soldiers!”

I digress. The point is that I have no problem with an evolving language. Language should evolve if we are to continue to express ourselves in a changing world. And, I’m a huge fan of catchphrases and slang that find their way into our language through their users.

I also have no problem with people slipping up in spoken language. We all have our vocal patterns and foibles. I have a neurological condition called Dystonia, which affects my ability to speak, so the shit that comes out of my mouth is often clumsy or ill-formed, but, if I’m talking, I can easily backtrack or restate. Besides, context is everything in conversation, and we all take shortcuts and often misspeak.

My problem is with the written language and with specificity.

TMT is a prime example of someone who makes little sense, while apparently whipping his audience into a frenzy. Stephen Miller is director of speechwriting at the Whitehouse. I do not know how TMT’s speeches are written, or how tightly he sticks to his scripts… I suspect his speechwriters rely heavily on key words, and that TMT goes off piste a good deal.

I am not a follower of TMT’s Twitter account. I’m rather afraid that reading his outpourings would induce a mental decline in me, and, possibly, lead to an attack of apoplexy, and I can do without that.

I did see a recent tweet, posted to TMT’s account, and widely repeated.

He, or someone on his staff wrote:

"And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me
to get elected."

You can bet your life I wasn't going to put a picture
of TMT on my blog.
There are times when the truth is expressed inadvertently. I do not think TMT wrote what he intended. If TMT had the sort of written language skills that a man in his position ought to have, he would not have written or OKed this tweet.

Specificity in the written language is important. We should all know how to express ourselves precisely. Room for interpretation should not be part of a political statement. Some readers will simply not understand what they are reading, some will not be critical. But, if there is genuine misunderstanding on the part of the reader, isn’t that the responsibility of the writer?

I do not believe for a moment that TMT intended to divulge the fact that Russia helped him to get elected. But, that was what he said. TMT’s claim only excludes his collusion with Russia in helping to get him elected. It blatantly affirms that Russia did help to get him elected.

The things that we know to be true often come out in our expressions, verbal or written, whether we want them to or not. Specificity in the written language can be critical. In most cases it’s critical that the reader is not misled. In this case it was a critical error on TMT’s part that exposes us all to facts that he would never have deliberately made public.

I guess this is a case of TMT being hoist with his own petard. Sadly, I suspect there will be no consequences.

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