Every one of us who tries their hand at writing grapples with this. It is the struggle to express with the right word or set of words those thoughts rattling around in your head. Often, it is the frustrating difference between the “right” word and the “almost right” word.
Why does this matter? That was a question that came up in a discussion this morning of a thirty-year old book that included an extended discourse on the use of two different English words to translate a Greek term. In particular, a number of us who have been around a while remembered when this discussion was vigorously contested but now rarely comes up. Is it just because the topic is passe’? Or is it because we are less interested in discussions that involve careful distinctions around the meaning of words? Have we become more inclined to take a “whatever” approach to distinctions in words and ideas where people might differ?
To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this. I read examples of both lucid writing and poorly constructed sentences and statements every day. Is there more of this than in the past? When one reads journals and letters from the past, I’m not sure. There were plenty of misspellings and grammatical errors and imprecisions of thought in the past.
What I do know is that clarity of expression matters. Have you ever been in a meeting where participants are going around and around about a course of action, and suddenly someone who has been listening carefully speaks up and says, “is this what we are saying should be done?” and proceeds to crystallize the ideas floating around the room or conference call? I’ve often found this makes all the difference between muddle and meaning in a group.
Perhaps this matters now more than ever with our capacity to easily disseminate various forms of verbiage both within our organizations but also around the world (this blog being one example of this!). I wonder whether the ease and rapidity with which we can communicate via tweets, texts, emails or even blogs can erode the clarity of thought and expression that came when you drafted a letter, revised and proofed it, and then typed and sent it out via the postal service.
What is more troubling to me is to witness the deterioration of the public use of words where diatribes and ad hominem attacks substitute for a reasoned argument that marshals evidence to persuade a listener. I am also troubled when I read writing that is jargon-laden, where it appears that the effort is to conceal meaning from those who don’t have the code to the jargon. I find this equally among theologians and academics in other fields of higher education. Often, these scholars are writing about matters that are not merely of scholarly concern. They concern what we will believe, how we will educate our children, how we will pursue medical care, and what public policies our civic and political leaders should pursue.
Perhaps why this matters most to me is that I believe reality is “word-shaped”. My worldview is one that believes that the material universe was spoken into existence, whatever other material causes and effects that set in motion. Our use of language mirrors that of the Maker–our words also have the power to bring things into existence, for good or ill. Similarly, I believe the moral framework of life isn’t something we simply socially constructed but was similarly articulated in formulations like the Ten Commandments. It is not coincidental, I think, that one of the names given “God in human flesh” was logos or Word. It seems that God did not want to leave us to muddle about in our search for meaning.
You might not agree with me in these matters. Many don’t! But I hope we might agree on the power of words. Words can hide the truth. Words can hurt. Words can muddle. Words can inflame. And words can be a vehicle for the thoughtful pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.