Consider this conversation: “Did you see the movie?” “Yeah.” “And?” “Awesome!” “Blew your mind?” “Totally!”
this exchange is typical of what we hear on the street. But does it provide any information? Does it induce you to see the movie? The movie-goer could have made any number of comments:
“It was enlightening. I felt inspired to take action.”
“It was a revelation about something I’ve been thinking about.” “I experienced a catharsis, and felt relieved of some fears.”
Vocabulary and phrases are tools of expression, our means for conveying information, convincing others, and sharing feelings. While we need not use big words when small ones fit the bill, I suggest that we can and should strive for exactness of expression. I have often puzzled over the fact that, while children and young people learn vocabulary and expression in school, outside the classroom they seldom use what they learn. I believe this is the case because they rarely see or hear adults expressing themselves with precision.
Much writing and public speaking today is highly informal. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this trend, it lends itself to impoverished modes of expression. Consider some models from literature. Anyone who reads Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, or William Faulkner will notice precision and economy of expression. In public speaking, re-read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a model for succinctness. And in recent times, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama stand as precise users of the language. Not to neglect the other side of the political spectrum, I would cite the late William Buckley as a writer who used the language with care. These speakers and writers use twelve words to say what takes most of us forty words, and their expression is rich in nuance and association.
In my children’s theatre class, I recently read a story to my young students. In it, one of the characters acted unkindly toward another. One of the boys reacted with, “that’s so not-nice.” Words to describe the incident depicted might have been: inconsiderate, uncharitable, unthinking, mean-spirited. One may say that my young student expressed himself in such simple language because, given his age, he lacks expressive vocabulary. But I submit that he did so because his parents express themselves that way.
Children are more than capable of handling polysyllabic words (if you doubt this, have a conversation with a 4-year-old about dinosaurs). They imitate us. We owe it to our children to help them build a solid foundation for self-expression. Our care and precision with language will cause them to do likewise. We do ourselves a favor in the process, plus you’ll impress your friends and improve your chances for a promotion in the workplace.