Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Tools of the Trade

Perhaps what separates a writer from normal people is an unholy fascination with words and language and a quite unnatural ability to get lost in a reference book for hours. It's very strange, I'm sure, for a normal, healthy person with a simple question like, "what is a neologism?" to end up, two hours later, prostrate on the sofa contemplating the derivation of the term "couch potato". I had to sit up to write this.

And what is the deal with however? Why can't it be an conjunction like but? Well, it can, but it isn't meant to be. However is, first and foremost, an adverb. That puts it firmly in the same camp as such words as totally, profligately, animatedly and beautifully (and firmly, just quietly - see what I did there?). However is a little weird though. It means "in whichever manner". So you can write something however you like, but you're not supposed to use it to mean "although" or "nevertheless". This is pretty hotly contested stuff among nerds of English and, frankly, my dear, I fall on the side of its comfortable use, sometimes, as a conjunction.

Losing sleep over however is not a good idea. You're far better off losing sleep over the things that matter. Like food, your health, the roof over your head; Maslow's hierarchy of needs comes to mind. But for those of us who write for a living, or even for fun, or even just to annoy our family and friends, or all three; language matters. It matters because it carries meaning. Meaning is the end-game of language. My words reach your brain in this magical telepathy thingimywhatsit and bingo! you've got my message.

If the words are wrong, or the grammar incorrect, the meaning will be unclear and it's likely that my message is not the same as your message. That is, what I thought I was conveying is not what you have understood, which is a big problem. Major conflicts in the home, in the boardroom, on the playing field, at the pub and sometimes between nation states, arise this way.

Clarity is the hallmark of good language usage. If your words are wrong, they're not doing their job. So if you have a message to convey, and limited space to convey it in, then you'd best get it right. Which is why I have these books, and spend stupid amounts of time pouring over them. It may be unnatural, but it is interesting and it helps me help people get their message across to their audience effectively.

(And don't, please, start on me about ending sentences with a preposition... or starting them with a conjunction for that matter. It is something up with which I shall not put.)

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