The Power Of Language

If the San Fransisco Board of Supervisors have their way, the words “felon,” “offender,” “convict,” “addict” and “juvenile delinquent” will be part of the past in official San Francisco parlance under their new “person first” language guidelines.

“Going forward, what was once called a convicted felon or an offender released from jail will be a ‘formerly incarcerated person,’ or a ‘justice-involved’ person or simply a ‘returning resident.’

Parolees and people on criminal probation will be referred to as a ‘person on parole,’ or ‘person under supervision.’

A juvenile ‘delinquent’ will become a ‘young person with justice system involvement,’ or a ‘young person impacted by the juvenile justice system.’

And drug addicts or substance abusers will become ‘a person with a history of substance use.'”

Cue the protestations of political correctness. The intent, however, is quite noble. Matt Haney, one of the Supervisors says, “We don’t want people to be forever labeled for the worst things that they have done.” Imminently sensible.

Tyler Cowen has a concern worthy of serious consideration:

“. . . here is my worry.  It is we who decide how powerful language is going to be.  The more we regulate language, the more we communicate a social consensus that it has great power.  And in return the more actual power we grant to those linguistic ‘slips’ and infelicities which remain.  It is better to use norms to regulate the very worst speech terms, but not all of them.  By regulating too many parts of speech, and injecting speech with too much power, we actually grant more influence to the people and ideas we are trying to stop.”

My worry is different. I fear the proposals open the floodgate to an unprecedented wordiness. Case in point, from the San Fransisco Chronicle article:

“The language resolution makes no mention of terms for victims of crime, but using the new terminology someone whose car has been broken into could well be: ‘A person who has come in contact with a returning resident who was involved with the justice system and who is currently under supervision with a history of substance use.'”

If that level of wordiness becomes the new normal, I will not survive this world for long.

Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words