I am grateful for words, for how they get together to tell a story, to set a scene, to deepen our imagination.
Samuel Johnson was an English writer born in 1709. He is considered one of the most often quoted writers in the English language, next to William Shakespeare, with sayings such as “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” and “integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful” and so on. So I shall quote him when I repeat his words: “language is the dress of thought”. Well said, Samuel. We can dress in underwear when we speak or we can bundle up with layers and accessories and bright colours and a jaunty hat.
Words are being added to our language on a fairly regular basis, but it is a reasonable estimate that the English language is comprised of more than a million words, somewhere around the 1,025,000 range. It is said (by whom I’m not sure) that the average person, native to the English language, has a firm understanding of about 40,000 of those words. If I had to sit and pen out my grasp of the English language I’m not sure I would hit the 40,000 word mark, nor am I going to try. Sometimes I just struggle to remember which word to use in the case of effect or affect, lay or lie, to name just a few of my struggles with words, struggles that grow in proportion to my age.
There are those who dedicate their studies and career to language and its effectiveness in communication. Those individuals have suggested a couple of words be removed from regular use and I have considered the advice and have to say I agree. Should and but top the list of words to be eradicated. Whenever I use “should” in a sentence I cringe, wince even.
I can understand why “should” is a likely candidate. By its very definition it implies a criticism of one’s actions, and mostly in hindsight. I can think of a million things I shouldn’t have done or should have done, but it’s too late for all that, the damage has been done, the opportunity lost. “The road to hell is paved with should”, though I paraphrase. And that is a lovely segue into the other word that needs removal or to be used with less vigour. This word is “but”.
I recently heard a young mother discuss her efforts to stop using the word “but” when speaking to her children. She is a teacher, a very fine teacher, and has recently attended a “language of leadership” workshop and how the word “but” cancels or dilutes that which came before. “But” diminishes what someone has just said or if someone jumps in to finish the discussion, using the word “but” reduces the power of those words that were spoken first. “You are a lovely person, but …” See what I mean?
I tried for a day not to use that word. It’s not easy. Thankfully, I have a serious cough and cold and talking is limited and as a result conversation was somewhat challenging. So my efforts are now focused on when I make a statement or listen to a statement. Rather than challenge the statement’s purpose with a “but” I will adopt other words. I will say, “Yes, that’s a good idea” and then maybe pose a question to follow. If I really don’t agree I might nod my head with a slight tilt to the side, which clearly indicates my hesitation. I only wish to use this language adjustment with my grandchildren. I don’t want to “but” or “should” them. I want them to have wings, to fly, to dream. “Sure you can jump off the roof, but I’m pretty sure you’re going to break a leg” could more aptly be said as: “Jumping off the roof would be so exciting. Do you see any problems that might arise from falling twelve feet?” I can be creative. I’m a writer for heaven’s sake.