Stalking Language

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Writing requires a certain precision in grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. It’s not always easy to get these elements to line up in a meaningful way. Sometimes it can be downright difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I have yet to see a college degree plan that doesn’t require proof of competency…usually by attaining a grade of “C” or better in a composition class of some sort.

I enjoy language. I enjoy using language to inform, describe, and entertain. More specifically, I enjoy writing. I spend a decent amount of time putting ideas into a readable format. I also spend a lot of time revising so that what I wrote matches what I want to say on more than one level. This means paying attention to more than just the definition of a word. It also means examining the connotation so that denotation matches the emotional intent. (As an example, compare the following: smell, odor, stench, fragrance.)

In addition to determining the appropriate vocabulary, I also pay attention to the grammar and syntax. I’m sometimes criticized for using what some of my readers call “bizarre sentence construction” or “confusing” sentences. They then suggest a simpler way of saying what they believe the message is. For example:

My version: I would have been walking for three hours at four o’clock yesterday afternoon.

Their version: I was walking at four o’clock yesterday afternoon.

Yes, their version is easier to understand; however, in looking at the implications of how the information is presented, my version conveys (or at least is intended to convey) a person reconstructing his memory to report it to a questioner. The other is more like someone with a time-stamped video.

So what? Just because I spend extra time to make sure a particular message includes not only the appropriate denotation, but also the appropriate emotional content, does that mean I expect everyone else to do the same? Of course not. Many times, it’s not even necessary. Unfortunately, sometimes it is. I recently ran into just such an issue in one of my textbooks. It rests on a single word: “between”. The issue: defining cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and flame war.

The text has the following definitions:

Cyberbullying: children or teenagers bullying other children or teenagers via the Internet

Cyberstalking: repeated threats or harassing behavior between adults carried out via email or another Internet communications method

Setting aside the issue that differentiation based on age is, at best, arbitrary, there are so many problems with the cyberstalking definition, it’s hard to know just where to begin*. However, just looking at the second definition (not the word it’s defining), it seems to define “flame war” better than “cyberstalking”. One of my reasons for saying this is the word “between”. Doing less than two minutes of research, you can see that most definitions of cyberbullying/cyberstalking go one way. If you look up “between” on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the first definition in the full definition listing is: “by the common action of: jointly engaging”. In other words, there is reciprocal effort. That just doesn’t fit with the apparent intention of the definition.

The really annoying thing is that when I asked about this in order to clarify my understanding of what will be tested in class, the instructor merely repeated the definition and justified it as “the textbook was written by computer experts.” *headdesk*

*For comparison, here is the National Institute of Justice’s (the research section of the US Department of Justice) definition of cyberstalking: the use of technology to stalk victims; it involves the pursuit, harassment, or contact of others in an unsolicited fashion initially via the Internet and e-mail. It is part of the web page describing stalking. (http://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/stalking/)

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Precision Language

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I love coming upon new words as I read. I came upon a new one, today: dilatory. It refers to being slow or lazy. So why not say ‘slow’ or ‘lazy’? In most instances, I probably would. But when it comes to characterization, I tend to look for ways to make each character sound unique. Vocabulary is probably the easiest for me.

I’ve been called to task for using words that the reader doesn’t understand. I understand the reasons for such a critique. Anything that could draw your reader out of the world you’re creating is usually to be avoided. My personal viewpoint, however, is that it is better to use the appropriate word, not the easiest word.

The downside is that I tend to use these words in everyday conversation, often without realizing it. Worse, I use them without realizing that not everyone enjoys language like I do. I’m occasionally afraid that I come off as pretentious or patronizing. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t use vocabulary to show off, I use vocabulary to communicate.

I’ve been told (multiple times) I’m very precise in how I speak. It’s not something I really focus on. I focus on the message and what words best communicate that message. I have a decently large vocabulary, so I use it.

That said, ‘dilatory’ probably won’t appear much in my speech. It seems to be mostly associated with attitude rather than a state of being. I’m far more likely to end up using ‘desultory’.