Years and years ago after I gave a brief talk at a local Kiwanis gathering I was approached by a gentleman who told me he liked my columns, but added, politely, that at times he had no idea what I was talking about. I can’t remember, exactly, if this was the same fellow who told me my writing sent him to the dictionary, but I’ve had people say that to me.
And so you make a note to self: Don’t send reader to dictionary. But then there are times when you think, why not? And then there are other times when you think that if you’re going to send a reader to a dictionary it better be for a good reason. You can circle the block on this many times.
It’s good to write so readers can understand, obviously, but it’s also not so straightforward. English is by nature a crazy language, a complicated one, and clarity can be an elusive target. Language can also be used as a tool of obfuscation (got your dictionary handy?) and deception.
There are all sorts of perils. Consider, for an example, that they’re, their and there all sound the same when you speak them, but mean completely different things and that you have to be careful to write the one you mean and not one of the others you don’t.
A recent letter to the editor complained of the “impenetrable” musings of Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist whose pieces run with some regularity in the Record-Journal opinion pages. Douthat’s paragraphs can indeed be dense, and demand patience on the part of the reader. How much can a reader be expected to tolerate?
Rich Lowry recently called Latinx a “hideous neologism.” Would it have been better had he simply said Latinx is an ugly new word? Lowry is editor of the National Review, and his column also runs routinely on these pages. He’s sent me to the dictionary a few times, but I’m a freak. I like it.
In case you were wondering, Latinx is an attempt to avoid, or escape the gender distinction built into languages like Spanish. So it’s not Latino or Latina, but Latinx. “Latinx may end up being a woke experiment that failed,” Lowry wrote, “showing the vast gap between the identity-politics-obsessed progressives earnestly talking to one another in seminar rooms and on social media and the Hispanics in whose name they presume to speak.”
In 2005, I had the good fortune to meet William Zinsser, who gave a talk at the R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison. Zinsser, who died in 2015, is author of “On Writing Well.” Even though that book never strays far from my desk, I recognize I ought to take a look at it more often.
As the Associated Press noted when he died, Zinsser was a mentor for authors who also “valued the business executive trying to compose more understandable memos, the lawyer with the life story to share, the church volunteer eager to document her good work.”
The second chapter of “On Writing Well” opens describing a situation I don’t think has improved since it was written: “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
Clarity can be elusive, but it’s worth pursuing. That gentleman years ago was helping when he reminded me of that.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at email@example.com.