Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Need to Read

“We all need literature that is above our measure–though we may not have sufficient energy for it all the time.  But the energy of youth is usually greater.  Youth needs, then, less than adulthood, what is down to its (supposed) measure. . . .Therefore do not write down to Children or to anybody.  Not even in language.  .  .  . An honest word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context.  A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group.  It comes from reading books above one.”

The above quote is from a letter written by author J. R. R. Tolkien, a man known best for his fantasy novels.  His book The Lord of the Rings was voted by scholars as the most important book of the 20th century.  But Tolkien’s main calling in life and chief identity was as an educator and philologist.  As Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then as Professor of English Language at Oxford; as one of the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary; and as the author of a number of influential treatise on language and writing, he was one of the leading authorities in English language education in his day.  He also knew 26 other languages, not counting the ones he invented himself.  In other words, I believe he knew what he was talking about when it came to teaching children language.

It is estimated that there are nearly three quarters of a million words in the English language, and that number is growing all the time.  But studies show that even well educated people in America tend to know less than 20,000 of those words, and that the average American uses only about 2,000 words in everyday conversation.   Why is this?  English is one of the richest, most versatile languages currently in use, but we utilize only a fraction of its incredible vocabulary.  I submit two possible reasons, each related to the other.

First, we speak down to our children; and read down to them, too.  Instead of helping them to increase their vocabulary, we encourage them to use only small, “simple” words.  My question is, who decided which words would be considered “simple”?  When a child is born, he knows no words at all.  Every word is equally new to him.  And he is born hard-wired to absorb language at an incredible rate.  He can and will learn any word that is directed to him in context.  It doesn’t matter if the words have one or five syllables:  he can learn to recognize them and understand them.  I am not, of course, implying that a baby can speak complex words;  but that is a physical, not a cognitive problem, and one he will grow out of swiftly.  The child may not be able to pronounce the words, but that does not mean he cannot understand them.  The point is to use words in everyday interactions so as to introduce them in proper context.  As the child grows older, he can be encouraged to ask the meanings of the new words he encounters and can be taught to discern the meanings of unfamiliar words through the overall meaning of the sentence in which it is used.  This is equally true in verbal communication and in literature.  Reading books that stretch and exercise the child’s cognitive abilities will have the same effect on his mind that fresh air and physical activity will have on his growing body.  Unfortunately, Americans in general no longer encourage their children to read good books.  Looking through the stacks of the local library will reveal shelf-loads of drivel written for children’s consumption, all written with a certain age group in mind and an artificially curtailed vocabulary meant to suit that age group.  Americans do not speak to their children as if they were intelligent human beings.  They talk down to them as if they believe children to be subnormal or incapable of learning normal speech.

I offer an example from my own children’s lives.  I ask my friends’ indulgence, as anyone who knows me well has surely already heard this story a number of times.  But it is a perfect anecdote to illustrate my point.  When my daughter Freya was seven years old, our washing machine broke down.  We had to gather up our five or six baskets of laundry and head to nearest laundromat for what I knew would surely be an adventure encompassing the entire afternoon.  Accordingly, I brought some of Freya’s schoolwork with us so that we could pass the time in useful pursuits.  I set her up on a folding table with math problems to solve, and proceeded to fill five washing machines.  Just then, she discovered the vending machines and loudly requested a snack.  I called back to her, “Whether you get a treat is contingent upon how quickly you finish your schoolwork.”  Instantly, a middle-aged harridan swooped across the room at me and cried, “How dare you speak to that child that way?”  I was bewildered, and not a little angry!  Was this woman objecting to my withholding treats from my child?  She went on, “How do you expect the kid to understand you when you use words like ‘contingent’?  I don’t even know what that means!”  Apparently I was guilty of child abuse by using a word of more than one syllable.  Many retorts came to mind, including one that questioned her innate intelligence and another that questioned her right to insert herself into my business.  Instead, I turned to Freya and asked, “Did you understand what I meant by “contingent’?”  “Not exactly,” my seven-year-old replied, “but I figured it out from the context.”  My assaulting harridan turned red and slunk away.

Of course, my children are more intelligent than any others on earth.  But that’s besides the point.  Any child can learn to discern  the meanings of new words by placing them in context.  The best way to teach them to do this is to read good books to them.  Many Americans make the mistake of reading to their children only until they are able to read for themselves.  We must continue to read to our children until they are at least 10 or 11 years old.  And the books we read to them should be well-written and contain a vocabulary that will challenge them.  For example, I read The Lord of the Rings to my son when he was nine.  He devoured it, and before he turned ten, he was ready for The Silmarillion, a book many adults have a hard time wading through.   I believe every  eight- or nine-year-old should read, or have read to him, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time, and other books of the same caliber.

This brings me to the second reason I believe our working American vocabulary is so pitifully small.  Adults don’t read good books, either.  Many of the modern novels that seem to be popular have inferior vocabularies and simplified sentence structures.  Some are so badly written they are actually detrimental rather than otherwise.  Adults in America seem unable to rise to the challenge of “reading above their measure”, as Tolkien puts it.  Whether out of sheer laziness or from a shortened attention span, most Americans cannot bring themselves to read good books.  And so they impoverish themselves, satisfied with the crusts of cultural experience and deliberately avoiding the meat and potatoes, the nourishing fruits, and the rich delicacies that our amazing body of English literature freely offers anyone who desires the best.  Our children learn from this example and so grow up so starved and so ignorant of all that is available to them that they cannot see the abundance that they could possess if they would only reach out and take it.

Why is it important to increase one’s vocabulary?  Why does reading good books enrich us both mentally and spiritually?  The fact is, humans are virtually incapable of thinking about ideas for which they have no words.  A limited vocabulary means a limited ability to think and reason.  Limited reading material means limited access to ideas and experiences.  It also means having to make do with an inadequate vocabulary to try to express complex thoughts.  There is a reason there are so many synonyms in the English language; each individual word carried a slightly different shade of meaning.  To illustrate:  the other day I was sitting in on my daughter’s art lesson, and the teacher was showing them how to prepare a canvas using a wash of burnt sienna.  She objected to the use of burnt umber or raw umber, insisting on burnt sienna as the best color to use for this purpose.  Now, I would have looked at all three of these colors and called them “brown”.  However, even my unpracticed eye could detect the differences in these three shades of brown, although I could not have explained what made them different.  For an artist, however, the use of exact words to describe the exact shade of color desired helps to circumvent all manner of misunderstanding.  Can you imagine if we only had the word “brown” to describe every shade of brown?  “Now class, use your brown paint to make the wash for your canvas.  No, that brown is too orange.  It must be more yellowish.  No, that’s not quite it, either.  Less red and more black.  No, no, that was too much black.”  It could take years to rediscover the color called “burnt sienna”, with each student having to recreate it every time it was needed.  There are shades of meanings in every word we use, not just the words for colors.  If I said I had a “good” time this weekend, I would have conveyed no information whatsoever.  Did I have a pleasant time?  Or was it unpleasant but informative?  Interesting? Life-altering?  Or was it simply restful? Peaceful?  Or busy? Satisfying?  Useful?  The more words we have at our disposal, the more accurately we can convey information and the more productive our thinking will become.  We should be diligent to equip our children with a vocabulary they can use for a lifetime of thinking, speaking, and reading well.


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Journalism at its Worst


I have always been a staunch supporter of the newspaper.  My favorite way to begin my day is to read the paper over a light breakfast–in front of a roaring fire if it’s a cold, wintry day.  I do watch the news on television occasionally, but I much prefer the more in-depth coverage of the printed word.  Don’t get me wrong:  I am perfectly aware that the written news is just as biased and as often in error as televised news.  Cynic that I am, I never take a journalist’s word for anything.  My husband, a police officer, has sometimes noted that the items of news he is aware of from his work are never reported accurately.  But I am fine with taking everything I read with a grain of salt and I think I’m pretty good at sifting through and finding truth where it’s offered.

But until recently, one could at least be certain of the quality of writing in a newspaper..  I took some journalism courses myself in college, so I am aware of the training it takes to prepare for a such a career.  I was taught that journalists were representatives of the people and should uphold the highest standards of excellence in writing.  Therefore, the shocking language I’ve been subjected to in our newspapers of late appalls me.  I refer to the astoundingly poor grammar many of our reporters have been using in the past few years.

Now, I am not a grammar prude:  I don’t expect perfect grammar in casual conversation, and use relaxed standards myself for everyday communication.  But speaking the language casually and writing it professionally are two different things.  Lapses in grammar are unforgivable in such a forum.  Journalists should be taught to use impeccable grammar in their work; and since even “Homer nods”, editors should be alert enough to catch any errors that creep into writer’s copy.  Writers in the news media should be setting an example for the public at large in correct use of formal language. I have in the past used the newspaper as an aid in teaching my writing and literature classes.  I will have to be more selective in my curriculum in the future.

I’ve been disappointed in the quality of writing in the newspaper for some time, but the breaking point was an article I read this past weekend in which the phrase “drug through the mud” was used, not once but twice!  Now I grant you that this was a quotation.  But I can think of only few reasons that this particular quotation was chosen the by writer of the article in question.  This was a quote by a spokesperson for a large, prominent, influential organization with thousands of members.  Could it really be that there could be no one found to speak for this important organization who was capable of conjugating a simple verb?  I’m afraid that may be true.  But if not, and there were other spokesmen which the journalist could have chosen to quote, why did he chose to quote the less educated speaker?  Was it because he deliberately wanted to make this organization seem ignorant and backward?  Or did this journalist really not recognize substandard speech when he heard it?  I am so afraid that this last is the true explanation.

I’ve been noticing more and more frequent lapses in usage lately.  For example, the use of “who” instead of “whom”; using “it’s” when “its” is indicated; incorrect use of quotation marks and commas.  I know I sound picky, but if we begin to allow error to creep in, where do we stop?  Correct grammar is important to reduce misinformation and misinterpretation of the writer.  As one is unable to hear the tone of voice used, correct grammar is much more essential in writing than in speaking.  I have also noticed an increase in the use of slang or colloquialisms in news articles, as the public’s vocabulary grows smaller.  Slang is fine in casual conversation, but formal English should always be used in a forum such as a newspaper:  the newspaper should be setting the standard in correct writing. It is already becoming increasingly difficult to converse intelligently with the general public because so many people no longer understand standard English.  The fact is, we can only think and talk about ideas that we have the words to express.  With a shrinking vocabulary and a growing inability to wield a pen, it is getting harder and harder for people to understand the world around them or to express ideas with any depth.

This is pathetic, because the English language is the richest and most expressive in the world, with the most extensive vocabulary.  The newspaper should be enriching us, stretching us to greater knowledge, instead of catering to the lowest common denominator of education.  I have noticed that as our ability to keep in touch with one another increases in ease, the topics of our conversation have dropped to the most basic levels:  what we are doing at the moment and how we feel about it.  Topics, in fact, that most animals are able to communicate by touching noses.  As humans, language gives us the ability to explore new ideas and discuss abstract thought; communicate facts and advance intelligent discourse on many subjects; express reasoned and logical arguments and debate differences with nuanced skill.  At least, we should be able to expect as much from our local newspaper.

I offer this example: the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf.  For months, every single news article I read about this event said that the oil pipe was “busted”.  Not any of the other dozens of more precise English words that could have been used was used–this uninformative slang word was consistently the only word used to describe the accident.  The pipe was never  cracked, split, burst, crushed, snapped, fractured, or broken.  Just busted.  Steam rising from the top of my head, I finally had enough one day and began to rant about it to my poor husband.  “Unless that pipe was arrested, charged with a crime, and tried before a jury of its peers, it was not busted!”  I exclaimed in disgust.  My husband glared at me.  “A law enforcement officer,” he growled with a look of offended dignity, “resents, abhors, and strongly objects to the use of such a slang term when referring to the apprehension, arrest, and conviction of a criminal through due process.”

See what I mean?

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