Tag Archives: language use

Sticking the Landing

Because any modern language is functionally an open-ended system–there are nearly infinite ways to mix words to convey meaning–it’s remarkable that we can (mostly) express what we mean.

We’ve all seen videos of planes landing on a windy runway:  Seemingly down. . . then not quite down. . . veering to the right and then the left. . . and finally down. The phrase “sticking the landing” is common to both pilots and gymnasts.  Both want to land in the right spot. Verbalizing thoughts on the fly is a cognitive version of the kind of precarious act.  Successfully explaining ourselves in the space of mere seconds is a marvel of mind-body coordination.  Every word reflects a choice.  Do we go for a literal description, or one that is metaphoric?  Should our words be a first person report, an act of truth telling? How much detail is enough?  And will a colorful word quickly plucked out of the air give the wrong impression?

Especially in front of others we are conscious that the laydown of language that is still to come needs a attention. We pre-verbalize. And most of us are remarkably good at what then follows most of the time.

To sense this fluency-on-the-fly watch a four or five year old explain themselves.  We can almost see their little brains putting it all together.  Eyes get wide and their focus becomes intense as they search for the right combinations of words, grammar and syntax.  It’s always a treat to see grandkids find pathways for their ideas.

Kids acquire this capacity at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Language is a culture’s gift to it’s young.  But fluency itself is a life-long quest, mixing memory and experience with synergies that grow with larger vocabularies and refined understandings of how to use them.

Some of this prowess  begins to ebb in old age.  And some among us never fully master the task of linking impulses to coherent expressions. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of a few presidents.  George W. Bush was known for coming close to what he wanted to express, sometimes settling on phrasing or dependent clauses that trailed some loose ends.  As he knew, the results could be funny.  Here’s a few Bushisms from their official custodian, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

2. "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000

3. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 20004. 

4."Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

“Sticking the landing” can be hard for all of us.  Using the wrong acronym, I once explained to students that “unexploded IUD’s” were a particular problem in places like Afghanistan. They humored me by not bursting out in laughter.

What is interesting about presidents is that they leave a clearer record of their rhetorical misdeeds.  Listen to a collection of Trump teleprompter gaffes that he tries to correct by doing what amounts to some freelance riffing after the wrong word has been said.  He usually works sideways to get back up to the term he intended to use, like a jazz musician trying to turn a wrong note into a useful improvisation.

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic MSNBC

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic

President Obama was more conscious of word choice. He often spoke like an academic, sometimes using tedious pauses while he searched his brain for the phrase or word. To achieve this kind of fluency, Obama had to speak more slowly than the human norm of about 200 words a minute.  He gave up a certain glibness for the advantages of more precision.  It’s now apparent that some of us miss the rhetoric of such a laser mind.  Others relish the circus of visceral responses that now issue from the West Wing.

Even so, let’s not let the impurity of political rhetoric taint what remains a miraculous capability spread far and wide across the species.

The keyboard Inventor

                                      Flickr.com

The high threshold implied in the word “invention” explains why writers block, speakers freeze, and the rest of us may fumble through even a simple response. 

Sometimes we can be surprised by a word that pulls us up short. We didn’t expect to see it on the page. Such a moment came to me as an undergraduate dutifully slogging through the words of the important Roman rhetorician and statesman, Cicero. He noted that creating a message to be presented to others was an act of “invention.”

That’s it.  For 50 years I’ve puzzled over that term. You might suggest that I ‘get a life,’ but my sudden annoyance was  triggered by this less-than-obvious word summing up a communicator’s obligations. I wasn’t ready for a  term that seemed to scale up a process that seemed like it should be less onerous. Bach or Edison might have been the creators of “inventions.”  And give Tesla and Berliner their due. But surely writers and speakers can get by with a lot less. It seemed like overreach.

Bear with me a moment.  There’s a useful lesson here.

Most of us think of language and its various forms are already “out there.” I was certain that good lines of argument or amplification came from prior forms that were adapted, borrowed, or recycled from other sources. And there is a sense in which this is true. But the Latin “inventio” implies more. The idea sets the bar higher.  Indeed, the original term sits there on the page as something of a taunt: it begs us to believe that an effective speaker or writer is on the hook for engaging in a full-fledged act of creation. It turns a communicator into an originator rather than a user, an active agent rather than a pliable imitator. After all, invention was presented not as a minor idea, but the term that would represent the most important of the traditional five “canons” of rhetoric, along with arrangement, style, delivery and memory.

Are creative word-workers really in the business of innovating their ways through the world, like so many garage tinkerers who have given us gadgets we didn’t know we needed?  To be sure, inventio is sometimes translated from the Latin to mean “discovery,” or the process of “devising” a “stratagem” for a suitable verbal response. It turns out that Latin doesn’t a have rich vocabulary in this area. Even so.

Lest you think we’ve drifted into the realm of counting angels on the head of pin, the challenge Cicero laid down is real.  We confront acts of invention every time we sit in front of an empty sheet of paper or a blank screen. Some kind of situation requires an appropriate response. It might be a death in the family, a note to explain why we can’t attend an event, or—at the other end of the scale—an explanation of a guiding principle in American foreign policy. Cicero’s point is that the best response to the question “what can I say?” should be more than a paste-up of another’s ideas.

 Fluency requires bending words to the peculiar social circumstances that lie before us.

This explains a lot. The high-engagement threshold of invention accounts for why writers block, speakers freeze, and the rest of us fumble through a simple response that we wish we could retrieve. The hard truth is that off-the shelf comments usually don’t work very well.  Ideas meant for another time and audience often sit dead on the page.

The lesson coming from this single word is hard for my students to grasp. To be a writer means committing to an innovator’s level of engagement. Good writing is work. Knock-offs of written or spoken prose are easily revealed as the counterfeits they are. Fluency requires bending words to the peculiar social circumstances that lie before us:  a task unsuited to the intellectually lazy.