word craft



pho­to cred­it: Sasun1990 | 123rf.com

As I was work­ing today on a book, a mes­sage sud­den­ly popped up on my screen: 

“Did you know that you used more unique words than 85% of Gram­marly users?” 

First, I was star­tled by the appar­ent fact that Gram­marly was track­ing my words. Sec­ond­ly, I won­dered why they were track­ing my work. Third­ly, while I am aware that I have a large vocab­u­lary, and that I try to make my writ­ing var­ied, I make it a point — con­sid­er­ing my young read­ers — NOT to use obscure or exces­sive­ly com­plex lan­guage. In fact, I am a believ­er in sim­ple, straight­for­ward writ­ing to express the emo­tions about which I am writing.

On the same day, I read an arti­cle in the New York Times,An Ancient Solu­tion to Our Cur­rent Cri­sis of Dis­con­nec­tion.”

The arti­cle, by Mr. John Bowe, had this to say: 

“Han­nah Hob­son, a lec­tur­er in psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of York [UK] who has stud­ied the con­nec­tions among lan­guage, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and men­tal health … has found repeat­ed­ly that the inabil­i­ty to express feel­ings or ask for help can often cor­re­late with exist­ing or devel­op­ing men­tal health issues among youth. Con­verse­ly … improved com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills cor­re­late with young­sters’ emo­tion­al devel­op­ment and well-being.” 

Mr. Bowe is propos­ing the teach­ing of the (now) ancient teach­ing of rhetoric, which in its sim­plest form is the art of speak­ing and lis­ten­ing. When you con­sid­er the brevi­ty of e‑mail, the gen­er­al decline in read­ing, and that social media com­mu­ni­ca­tion is as slight in form as it is in con­tent, it is hard­ly a won­der that young peo­ple have not been taught how to com­mu­ni­cate their com­plex feel­ings and emotions.

One often hears the gen­er­al sense that young peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar ado­les­cents, are very emo­tion­al. True enough. And yet, in our cur­rent soci­ety, their expe­ri­ence with how to express those emo­tions is at best lim­it­ed, cut off, and trun­cat­ed. That inabil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate appar­ent­ly can lead to men­tal issues. 

Monster Walter Dean Myers

A good num­ber of years ago I was asked to speak at a boy’s juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter in Vir­ginia. Slumped in their chairs, their body lan­guage telling me that they were forced to be there, the young men were polite, but clear­ly not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in what I had to say or me for that mat­ter. That is, not until it came out that Wal­ter Dean Myers was a good friend of mine. Then they lit­er­ar­i­ly sat up in the chairs and began to pep­per me with ques­tions about him. It appeared that many of these young pris­on­ers had read Mon­ster, and the book had artic­u­lat­ed their feel­ings, so that I, by virtue of my con­nec­tion with Wal­ter, was sud­den­ly giv­en a flood of words and ideas. It was star­tling and pow­er­ful evi­dence of what a book can mean to young people. 

I don’t want to sug­gest that read­ing is a cure for all the prob­lems of men­tal ill­ness in our coun­try. But I will say if peo­ple can­not be taught or expe­ri­ence how to express their feel­ings, frus­tra­tions, and con­flicts with words, they will find ways—destructive ways—to express their emotions. 

Social media is often (right­ly, I think) crit­i­cized for its mis­in­for­ma­tion, lack of real con­tent, and sim­plis­tic artic­u­la­tion, but per­haps its most pro­found prob­lem is that it is an inept way to communicate.

So, when I am told (by Gram­marly) that my writ­ing is full of unique words, Gram­marly is not so much prais­ing me, as reveal­ing that a large part of the pop­u­la­tion is inarticulate.

The moral: be wor­ried about the per­son who can­not speak or write their thoughts.

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