All right, just so you know, this one’s gonna be another rant. A language rant, this time, though it edges into the political, in a way. I think the title probably gives it away: the word uh.
Yeah, I know. People use it a lot when they, uh, talk. But not as much as so many of the talking heads, from Obamanation on down. I can remember thinking, back when the man was campaigning, that one of the crappy things about him winning would be at least four years of listening to his every uttering broken every few words by that pause, followed by, “…uh…” I mean, it was bad enough that I really don’t like the sound of the man’s voice. Something about it gets on my nerves, and it ain’t got to do with the fact I think he’s a crappy president. He could be anybody and I’d get tired of listening to him talk real fast.
But this ain’t about Obama. It’s about language, and our politicians’ apparent lack of skill in same. I don’t really remember noticing it all that much until the last presidential election, and once I did, I noticed a lot of them use it. Now, recognizing that I get most of my news from NPR—a news organization for whom this equation is true: Obama=Jesus Christ—it seems to me that Dems are worse at it than Republicans.
Now, I figure there’s two ways of looking at this, and if you can come up with another, I’d be interested in hearing—sorry, reading it. The first reason that came to mind is that the Dems are so afraid they’ll offend someone, anyone, that they choose their words carefully. We are talking about the party that champions political correctness to the point that it’s an art form for them. Whereas the Republicans speak more directly because they’re already an offense to the vocal minority and don’t have to worry about offending anyone merely by speaking. All it takes is knowing they have an R after their name.
The other possibility is that the Dems are more intellectual than the opposing party. They think deeper and therefore choose their words carefully. The Republicans are less smart and closer to the average person (I challenge anyone to show me an average person) that both parties only worry about every four years or so anyway.
Whatever the cause, our politicians end up sounding like idiots. I don’t hear leaders from other countries injecting so many uhs into their comments, whether rehearsed or off the cuff. It’s an alarming trend that I throw in the bin with the tendency to start statements with the word so, whether it fits or not, and then ending every sentence in that statement with a lilting of the voice that makes it sound like a question.
Are we so unsure of ourselves that we need to talk this way? Have we spent too many years pandering to the lowest common denominator and, as a result, are becoming illiterate?
This is a very real concern for me. Forget the politics. I use the airhead politicians because they’re the most obvious example: we see and hear from them every day, whether we want to or not. But let’s consider something else along with it: flash fiction.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories on how articles posted online are getting shorter and shorter because people these days won’t take the time to actually read the printed word. What’s scary is that I find myself doing the same thing. Someone who shall remain unnamed said my letters to him/her were welcome but needed to be shorter, that if he/she sees they stretch out to more than a page or so, he/she loses interest (I’m not being PC here, just protecting this person’s gender).
I started out on epics like Lord of the Rings: big, heavy works that take not just hours to read, but days. At least for me, they do. The trend to flash fiction—stories of less than a thousand words, preferably somewhere around 600—disturbs me. Do we want even our entertainment to be fast and uninvolving? I spent several years working as a heavy equipment operator, building roads and such, and one of the things I wondered during that time is Are we trying to do too damn much? When you count dirt moved in the hundreds of yards a day, it’s a legitimate question.
When you count how entertained you are by now many different types you can digest in a day, maybe it’s time to slow down or even stop and take stock. If everyone becomes like the person I mention above, what’s gonna happen to society?
And more importantly, where am I gonna get my large, doorstop epics to read?
I’m not dissing flash fiction in and of itself. Stephen King has often lamented about the disappearance of the short story as an art form. Writing a self-contained story that short isn’t easy—I have yet to even get up the courage to try it. Hell, I can barely define even one character in 600-1,000 words, much less tell you an entire story. I’ve wanted to tackle the monthly story in Writer’s Digest but I’ve never been able to come up with something you can read while the commercials are on.
I did manage to write one of those six-word stories one time, which I reproduce here: He tripped, fell down, and died. It’s got it all: a complete story, some suspense, and an ending that makes sense and keeps the story self-contained.
Just don’t expect me to make a habit of it.
Or enjoy reading them much. They’re too much like wanting a stake and getting cotton candy instead: just not that satisfying. I can’t sink my teeth into them, sit down on a rainy day and lose myself in them for hours at a time. Some of the ones I’ve read are clever. They have to be, considering the limitations. But, see, with the word be in the previous sentence, I passed the upper limit, and I’m still going strong here. Which probably means many of you aren’t even reading these words. You stopped after I dissed Obama. That’s fine.
For those of you still with me, though, I want to wrap this up with one last matter: the word alright. I’m not sure if I’ve brought this up before or not. I know I’ve complained so much about it to so many people that I’m no longer sure where or when. Now, last I knew, that’s not a proper word. It should be written all right. If I remember correctly, already, which is proper, used to be two words that were finally combined into one at some point. I understand that language evolves. If it didn’t, we’d still be writing to-morrow and to-day, along with several others. But as far as I know, the proper form is still all right. Two words, not one.
And yet, I’m seeing it more and more often in published works. I’m reading an otherwise very well written sf novel entitled The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin, two brothers from the LA area. For those of you who are sf fans, I recommend it (so far) because it’s reminiscent of older Heinlein. But it’s published by Tor, not exactly an up-and-coming publishing house, and yet they let the word alright through. There’s a member of my writing group who will throw a book across the room if he sees this. I’m not that bad (and their use of OK instead of okay rubs me the wrong way, but those are both correct, as far as I know), but it still throws me out of the story. My version of Word calls alright a non-standard word, grouping it with ain’t and irregardless. That means it’s okay to use it informally, but not in text.
So, has alright become a proper word? Or are our editors getting that sloppy and ignorant of the language they’re working in? If it’s the former, well, okay, maybe I can accept that, though I doubt I will ever write it that way. If it’s the latter, though, that’s worrying, to say the least. Editors are the people who are supposed to weed out that kind of thing, make a writer’s work look even better. Sure, it’s our responsibility to make it right in the first place, but it’s understood that we’re human and prone to typos (I sometimes feel like my fingers have turned into toes).
Editors tell us how to make it sound better, and copy editors tell us how to do it correctly. I understand from some of my reading that at least a few houses have combined the two jobs, which might explain some of this. Unfortunately, that’s a little like putting the boy down in the mail room in charge of IT: he’s good at the general stuff, but he’s not suited for such a technical job. Editors are readers while copy editors are technicians.
Anyway, since I’ve gone over fifteen hundred words, I’d better truly wrap this up. Hopefully I haven’t offended anyone, but don’t expect me to say uh to keep from doing it. Me speak my mind.