Monday, December 18, 2017

Ideas, words, and lexical flexibility

Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an arm of the federal government, was reportedly ordered by the presidential administration to stop using seven words. This report sparked this post on ideas about writing, communication and research. I am particularly interested in the relationship between words and ideas or between words and things in the world, and the gap between those two things, which is an issue of crucial importance for academic writers.

The alleged censoring at the CDC has been disputed by the head of the CDC, and the New York Times suggested that the purpose of the directive was not to ban words, but rather to have a better chance at getting the budget approved by Republicans.  This puts a different view on things, and suggests the possibility that the people who spoke to the Washington Post in the original report might have misunderstood the purpose of the instructions.

But the accuracy of the report and the political implications and interpretations are not my interest here.  My concern is for the gap between ideas and words, an issue of importance for academic writers, because it can cause problems.  In particular, many people get lost in semantic issues: what does a given term mean to different people?  Different word meanings might be a good focus for research if you’re a linguist. But if you’re not a linguist, you can spend a lot of time and effort discussing and debating the various definitions of a given word without making any real progress on your own work.  

Words mean different things to different people and they take on different meanings over time—they refer to different things. And this is the key: there is a gap between the words used to describe a thing and the thing itself.  Changing the word doesn’t change the thing.   This is clear in differences between languages: English says “the sea” and French says “la mer,” but they’re both referring to the same thing.

For a writer, it is important to keep this gap in mind. Academics, particularly, want to keep their attention focused on the thing: what is the idea that interests you? What is the thing in the world that you are studying?  How can you describe that thing?  

There are different ways to communicate any given idea—not just by changing language, but by changing the mode of expression. And these different modes of expression have different impacts on different audiences.  At the obvious level, a presentation in languageX will only reach people who speak languageX. At a more subtle level, different ways of expressing an idea in a given language can impact audience acceptance.

The CDC instruction to avoid certain words can be seen as guidance for how to present ideas so that they will be accepted by the people who have to review the presentations.  If a reader is likely to respond badly to the word “evidence-based,” then there is a good reason to try a different word or phrase to present the same idea.

Writers (and orators) want to consider their audience when crafting a presentation: what kinds of expressions will the audience hear? What kinds of expressions will the audience reject?

When practicing writing, try to open up the gap between the ideas that interest you and the words and expressions you use to express those ideas. What are different words that you can use? What are different phrases or expressions?  By exploring different ways of expressing the same ideas, you increase your expressive palette, and increase your ability to reach different audiences.

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