Sunday, December 6, 2015

Mellowing in my old age (maybe).

Vladimir Nikulin | Fotolia
Tomorrow is my birthday. I won't quite reach "old fart" status this year, but I'm getting pretty close. And I find that while I'm less tolerant of certain things (racism, misogyny, oligarchy, and people who make me jump through hoops for what I'm due instead of just giving it to me) as each birthday passes, I'm also more willing to let some things go.

Take, for example, the use of certain words. No, not those words. 

Here's what I mean: On Monday, Chuck Wendig put on his crankypants and vented about this Wall Street Journal article, which talks about how language teachers are restricting their students from using certain words. Good, bad, fun, and said are out; instead, these fifth- through seventh-graders are being encouraged to use longer words. (At least one teacher has even banned you and I from classroom writing. How do you get around pronouns, for goodness' sake? I'm envisioning the class turning in work in a sort of Japanese style: "Why did honorable friend not answer when this person texted?")

The WSJ story makes it out to be a new thing, or at least a new-ish thing. But when I mentioned the furor to my daughter Kitty, she said she'd gone through the same thing with her teachers. That means this pedagogical idea has been around for at least 15 or 20 years.

I know why the teachers are doing it. Kids that age ought to be expanding their vocabularies, especially if they want to do well on the SAT in a few years (and if their teachers and parents want them to do well on the SAT, which of course they do). Short, punchy Anglo-Saxon words will only get you so far on standardized tests; you need to be able to wheel and deal with more complex words, and writing them is one way to learn them. But I worry whether these teachers are teaching precision in vocabulary. Okay, maybe you don't want the kid to use said if they're shouting. But an across-the-board "pick another word" edict can get you some pretty odd juxtapositions: something like "Deal me in," he beseeched just isn't going to cut it in most situations. 

The biggest problem, however, is that the kids internalize these rules, and then have to unlearn them later. Good and bad are perfectly fine words. In some cases, they're the perfect word. You don't have to call your salad magnificent unless it actually is. And embroidering on bad can be a lot of fun, but it can also go over the top pretty fast.

Said, too, is a perfectly fine word. In journalism, it's considered the perfect word for attribution. In fact, journalists like all sorts of short, punchy Anglo-Saxon words. Of course, they have some dumb rules, too. I vividly recall one writing expert telling us not to use the word feel when referring to a person's opinion. You know how people sometimes say, "I feel this is X because..."? That sent this guy through the roof: "YOU FEEL WITH YOUR HANDS!" he wrote in the class handout.

But going back to said: Many creative writing types recommend its use in dialogue tags, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Said blends into the background for the vast majority of readers, letting you -- and them -- get on with the story. Lately, I even find myself using said sometimes when a character asks a question.

Then there's another type of crankypantsy vocabulary practice: that of putting one's nose in the air and declaring this or that not a word. Self-appointed word police will even check the dictionary for words they're suspicious of, and the Oxford English Dictionary is one of their go-to resources. 

It turns out that the folks at the OED don't consider themselves any sort of authority on whether something is or isn't a word. Their take is that words are invented all the time. If someone uses it, it's a word. If a lot of people use it, it might get into the dictionary. But if it's not there, it doesn't mean it's not a legitimate word.

(Take that, Chrome! Crankypants is too a word!)

Anyway, my gift to you on this birthday eve is to use whatever words your teacher tells you to use -- in class. Outside of class, you have my permission to use whatever word you want. Including those words.

These moments of not-so-crankypants blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell

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