Those Pesky Words Just Keep Getting in the Way


Those pesky words (with their different spellings and meanings) just keep complicating our lives, as do the rules of grammar, punctuation, and literary mechanics. How much easier our lives would be without the rules, but without rules anarchy reigns—and with anarchy comes violence and the law of the jungle (where only the strongest survive). Anarchy is to foment a state of confusion. Today we live with the phenomena (phenomenon would be the plural) of social media, where ignorance is on constant display. Social media are only the sentinels of our cultural decline, and not necessarily the cause (though it’s likely a contributing factor).

Ignorance, once thought to be a social liability, now seems to have migrated to the asset side of the social balance sheet. Basic reading, writing, and “rithmetic” belong to the age of the dinosaur it would seem. How many can distinguish the difference between a homonym, homograph, and homophone? Not many I would guess. How many can construct a grammatically correct sentence, and punctuate it properly using established literary mechanics? How many can select precisely the right word or words to clarify a thought? It’s not just social media that stinks, today’s literature and journalism both reek of incompetence.

Ernest Hemingway is often given credit for today’s sparse, journalistic style of writing, but now he would be considered verbose, and probably receive rejection notices from agents and publishers. The screw turns. I love reading the literary classics of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Dickens, Doyle, Conrad, Maugham, Kipling, Greene, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Lee, London, and Conroy, to name but a very few. Their prose is immediate, atmospheric, and often profound. Shakespeare leaves me cold, his stories and plot lines are masterful, but I find his use of the archaic Old English language virtually inaccessible.

For financial reasons I found my literary style had to change with the times. Being commercially viable today, as a writer, means you have to master the new style. It feels like a copout and hypocritical, but that’s the reality of it. Blog posts and freelance articles have to follow this new style or people won’t read them. Attention spans are critically short, and articles are quickly dismissed if the hook isn’t set early in the first line or two. There is no time for a slow, methodical buildup—even full-length novels now pay homage to this new model.

I write freelance articles for money. The rules are very clear. Publishers want brevity and simplicity. Though often that very simplicity fosters confusion and mixed messages. Publishers want short, punchy declarative sentences (often incomplete sentences). They demand minimal punctuation (punctuation makes the reader think). Periods demolish colons and semicolons, commas disappear except for the exalted Oxford Comma (that final arbiter of clarity), and the other symbols of punctuation are likewise shunned. The god of common usage demands this sacrifice.

There are a few changes I embrace, though reluctantly I admit. Beginning sentences with a conjunction (and, but, or, if, because) is kind of cool. It serves the purpose of moving things along, and I like it, but it still makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes even the Oxford Comma (using a comma to separate the last item in a list for the sake of clarity) makes me uncomfortable (the old school taught me differently). When quoting a passage I enjoy using italics instead of quotation marks for a nice change of pace, I find it aesthetically pleasing on the page. I do love the comma, but I’ve probably used it far too much in the past.

Vocabularies have shrunk, because obviously a reader cannot be expected to actually use a dictionary (even if it’s an online dictionary) to look up the meaning of a word they’re unfamiliar with. My god, we wouldn’t want to burden the reader with having to learn something. Ignorance is no longer a sin, it’s an expedient (noun) in lieu of knowledge. The pursuit of education (and knowledge) used to be a worthwhile goal, but seems to have fallen by they wayside of late. I’m appalled at the number of people I meet with college degrees, and even postgraduate degrees, who can’t speak or write properly.

People with a high school diploma can barely keep up with an older generation’s elementary school education; college and university degrees aren’t much better than the high school education of yesteryear, and postgraduates often appear semi-illiterate at best. The cultural decline in the United States is progressing rapidly and exponentially. We are fostering a citizenry of uneducated, ignorant, and uninformed illiterates. A citizenry that, increasingly, cannot read, write, or speak intelligently, is a citizenry doomed to certain failure.

I understand this attitude of mine might seem pretentious, even pompous and self-serving, but I think it speaks more to reality than any delusion I might labor under. I’m not a formally well-educated man, my formal education didn’t extend beyond high school. I’m a curious man, and through self-education  I’ve managed to move beyond profound ignorance. I can speak and write effectively (and with some style) above what my education might suggest. I do not choose to stay ignorant, and I make every effort to improve my understanding and skill set when I can.

I’m primarily a photographer and only secondarily a writer. In photography digital technology rocked our world and changed photography forever. Old paradigms changed overnight, and old (traditional) ways of doing things morphed into new hybrid solutions for old problems. The bombshell for writers was Indie-publishing, not vanity press, but a new way of getting literary work in front of readers. Both photography and writing have been deeply affected by these new realities. Unfiltered work flooding into the marketplace has been the biggest shift: no agents, no publishers, and no galleries to insure quality-control.

Under the old rules and structure competency and quality were virtually guaranteed by professionals in the business. The professionals acted as gatekeepers, and none could enter the royal city without meeting certain expectations and standards. Though the marketplace was somewhat parochial, it did maintain a certain exclusivity of product. The marketplace is now cluttered with crap, like untended dog shit on a path, and you have to step gingerly among the land mines to reach your final destination—a good, readable book or a fine piece of photography.

My brother Joel is a paid reviewer of Indie-books. His major criticism of Indie-books is they all too often fall short in the fundamentals: grammar, punctuation, and literary mechanics. There is no professional editor involved to act as a filter, the writing goes directly from author to market. I find the same truism in photography when I’m curating photos for One Exposure, the photos often lack the fundamentals: focus, exposure, and composition. Again, there is no professional agent or gallery to act as a gatekeeper. I’ve curated thousands of photos (maybe tens of thousands), and it’s disheartening to see this level of ignorance and incompetence.

Writing and photography simply reflect the cultural decline I’ve been talking about, where expediency trumps competency. Don’t get me wrong—there are wonderful writers and photographers in the world, I’m just dismayed at how woefully outnumbered they are. Voluntary Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, it’s something to be shunned and overcome, at every opportunity, with education (formal or informal). Sloth is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so it might behoove us to avoid it when we can. In many ways I think the new literary paradigm is slothful, it ignores the implicit need for clarity and absence of confusion.

STEVE BIO PIC WEB Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, and World Traveller

Lima, Peru


4 responses to “Those Pesky Words Just Keep Getting in the Way

  1. Very interesting. I heard a story on NPR some time ago that talked about the level of speech and trends in presidential speeches. It talked about how JFK was really the last president to have eloquence and intelligent words in his speeches. Since then we have gone progressively downhill. I wonder if this is a reflection of the presidents or of the people they are trying to communicate with. As we look at a potential President Trump (shudder) speech and word use will take a gigantic step backward. His vocabulary consists of words like big, huge, bad, good, me, I, me, mine, me…did I mention me? It’s very sad.

    • I agree Don. If it wasn’t so sad it would laughable. I try to surround myself with people like you, who are: intelligent, articulate, and classy. To that end I am continually purging my friends list on Facebook, and looking for new potential friends.

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