{Stephen Fry “Language” – Kinetic Typography by Matthew Rogers}

I had to relearn how to use language in grad school. In college, I studied Psychology and Sociology. Both programs were housed in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (the “soft” sciences, whatever the hell that means). As a grad student, I live in the College of Sciences (the “hard” sciences, again, whatever the hell that means). Now I use concise, minimalist language when writing papers and research articles. I went from writing 30 page papers in college to writing 10 page papers in grad school. It sounds easy, but parsing down your language into the most essential components was a challenge. I lost my ability to be a creative writer when I became a scientist.

This blog was my way of bringing back some of that creativity. I discovered quickly that I was terrified of making a mistake. Friends would judge me if I didn’t use a comma or if I misspelled something or if I said “boldly go” instead of “go boldly.” No one would take me seriously if I made a mistake. Granted, I make them all the time. Mistakes are part of the editing process. Blogging is scary in some ways because once you hit Publish, it’s out there. It may remain in a subscriber’s Reader with that spelling error for eternity even if I change it on my blog. I misspell things, I forget commas, and I certainly don’t follow all the rules. I get tired of following the rules here because I follow all the rules in school and at work. Others are constantly editing my work, just as I am constantly editing theirs. It’s part of the learning process. It’s part of academia. It’s part of creating quality work as a writer.

Stephen Fry wrote incredible articles, sketches, and podcasts about language. Have you seen the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry sketch The Subject of Language or read Fry’s Don’t Mind Your Language article? If you haven’t, go watch the video and read the article now. You will not regret spending time doing either.

I am the first to admit it: I’m a snob when it comes to grammar and punctuation. It really comes down to knowing the difference between things like “it’s” and “its” and knowing in which contexts it is most appropriate to use punctuation. As Stephen Fry says, you need to “dress your language up” when you are at work, in school, or in other situations that require certain etiquette. If a student sends me an email without punctuation, it shows me they don’t care. It is difficult to take someone seriously when he or she doesn’t use punctuation or spell check in a professional or academic setting. I mean. Come on. Really?

But at the end of the day, sometimes we just need to write. Screw the critics and the rules and just write. Write what you feel and write what it is beautiful regardless of whether the structure of your sentence is perfect. Like Fry says, no one would ever read Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare if we judged “good” writing based solely on following the rules.

The next time I want to judge or criticize someone for breaking the rules of language (outside that “appropriate” context), I am going to write a love letter in which I boldly turn nouns into verbs. The next time you want to edit someone’s personal blog or short story or thesis or email because the writer broke the rules, please pause and take a deep breathe. Pull out a pen and paper, and write a letter to communicate something beautiful and heart wrenching to a loved one. When you finish writing it, read it out loud, and tell me if it drips off your tongue with passion and longing. If it doesn’t make you sweat or blush to hear your own words? You’re doing it wrong.

Also, I can’t wait to find all the “mistakes” in this post down the road.

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4 thoughts on “Language

  1. The most interesting part of it all to me is where each person acquires his language from and that it’s still constantly evolving. I want to know if you say “down the road” because your father says it or because you read a lot of Midwestern writers. I was highly amused when I picked up a friend’s habit of saying “get a shower” instead of “take a shower.” And it always amuses me when someone says a phrase that immediately gives away their profession.

  2. I’m very neurotic about making mistakes. I hope that doesn’t cost me my creativity in the long run. Maybe I can see mistakes and make them on purpose. Then they wouldn’t be mistakes… sigh. I still have a lot to learn.

  3. I feel I lost my creativity in uni, too – but in a different way. You lost yours through science, I lost mine to journalism school. Straight pyramid news reporting was where it was at. Luckily, I started blogging, and actually have a few posts I’m quite proud of.

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