The Power of Precise Language

Try to read this passage:

Eye Halve a Spelling Chequer

Eye halve a spelling chequer

It came with my pea sea

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word

And weight four it two say

Weather eye am wrong oar write

It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid

It nose bee fore two long

And eye can put the error rite

Its really ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it

I am shore your pleased two no

Its letter perfect in it’s weigh

My chequer tolled me sew.

Is this what you read?

I have a Spelling Checker

I have a spelling checker

It came with my PC

It plainly marks for my review

Mistakes I cannot see.

I strike a key and type a word

And wait for it to say

Whether I am wrong or right

It shows me straight away.

As soon as a mistake is made

It knows before too long

And I can put the error right

It’s rarely ever wrong.

I have run this poem through it

I am sure you’re pleased to know

It’s letter perfect in its way

My checker told me so.

If not, don’t worry; it took me a few tries to get it too. Only by reading it out loud and hearing the passage did I understand what I couldn’t before.

Sentences like these make me wonder: Who invented the English language? Why does “read” rhyme with “lead” but not with “read” or “lead”? How is it possible that the sentence “the farm was used to produce produce” even makes sense? I am not a linguistics major, so I am just as mystified as the rest of you non-linguistics majors as to how language has come to be. I do know, however, that the issue of language is larger than just words; language is inextricably intertwined with the issue of communication.

The National Communication Association describes communication as how people use “message to generate meanings within and across various contexts, cultures, channels, and media.” Communication, then, is how people exchange information and give meaning to their lives and actions.

Meaning makes the first poem difficult to understand, because the words do not match the meaning that the author wishes to give them. Simply put, the author is using the wrong words. For example, the first word is “eye” when it should be “I”. The author, therefore, creates an inherent conflict between the meaning of the word that is there and the word that should be there. This conflict misdirects and confuses the message of the whole poem.

Using the wrong words complicates communication. Using the wrong words gives messages and meanings that you did not wish to imply. Using the wrong words has historically led to conflict: partner against partner. Roommate against roommate. Culture against culture.

Such words can even cause conflict within oneself. Microaggressions, as defined by psychologists Daniel Solorzano, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso, are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Although microaggressions may be unintentional and said accidently, they still have negative impacts on the receiving party. Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue found that microaggressions can make people feel as though they don’t belong, they are abnormal, or they are untrustworthy. “These incidents may appear small, banal, and trivial, but we’re beginning to find they assail the mental health of the recipients,” Sue said.

A few years ago a Fordham photographer asked her friends to write down racial microaggressions they have encountered. Phrases included: “No, where are you really from?” “You don’t act like a normal black person.” “So, like, what are you?” In 2012 Dan Pallotta wrote in the Harvard Business Review about how people—taxi drivers, delivery men, pest control employees—always assumed that his partner was a female, when in fact Dan was gay. Although microaggressions can attack many different aspects of a person’s identity, they have the same foundation: the use of connotation. That is the essence of microaggressions; the negative connotation implied, but not said, that attacks a person for belonging to a certain group.

Using the wrong words can lead to microaggressions or more overt verbal attacks. Using the wrong words is not communication: it is miscommunication. Therefore the only way to clearly and effectively communicate is to use the right words.

The “right words” are words that have the exact meaning you wish to convey without negative or unwanted connotations. It is precise language. Using the right words means saying what you wish to say without making assumptions about somebody else’s life, actions, motivations, or opinions.  Using the right words means you do not force onto people your perceptions or judgments of them. Using the right words requires respect, a will to understand, and empathy.

But communication, of course, flows both ways—for communication to occur, not only must someone send a message but someone must also receive it. As Therese Shepherd, Julia Braham, and Carol Elston review in their paper about listening and interpersonal skills, “The successful listener must extract meaning from the message they have received in order to produce a coherent interpretation of what has been said.” That is, a person must understand the message for communication to occur. “In order to achieve this level of understanding,” Shepherd and her co-authors write, “it is assumed…that listeners must possess a willingness and ability to empathise with the speaker…they must see things from the perspective of the sender which requires them to have a certain level of respect for and interest in others.”

A failure to listen can cause the right words to become the wrong words.  A failure to listen is not communication: it is miscommunication. Therefore the only way to clearly and effectively communicate is to actively listen.

Actively listening means a person must understand the message, not merely hear it. Actively listening means having an open mind free of assumptions about anyone’s life, actions, motivations, or opinions. Active listening means you do not force onto people your perceptions or judgments of them. Active listening requires respect, a will to understand, and empathy.

Both precise language and active listening are crucial to communication, especially in discussions about sensitive topics. It is only with both of these skills that communication can even occur. Precise language and active listening, allowing people to arrive as they are, are equally necessary to have engaging, educated, and productive conversations.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic

February 1, 2015