Friday, November 19, 2010

Grammar and communication

English is a spoken language.  Maybe all human languages are spoken*.  Writing is just an afterthought.  It's a poor second cousin to speaking, when it comes to communicating.

When you speak to someone in person you are able to watch them and hear the intonations in their voice.  Humor, sarcasm, hyperbole, empathy, and a whole range of other emotions are carried by non-verbal queues.  The speaker winces and you feel her pain, even if her words don't communicate pain.

In technology terms, spoken communication is a relatively wide communication channel.  The words are one channel.  The body movements are another channel.  The facial expressions are another channel.  The pitch of the voice is another channel.  The pacing of the words is another channel.  And the listener is able to communicate back across many of those same channels at the same time.

When we write we are restricted to one channel, and we get no feedback.  You can't see the tears in my eyes as I type.  You can't see how long I spent formulating that sentence.  You can't see the emphasis I placed on one word.  And I can't see the look of recognition in your eyes that tells me that you are understanding what I am typing.

Grammar is our crude attempt to insert some of the information from the non-verbal communication channels into the stream of words.

Commas indicate incomplete thoughts.  Periods indicate completed thoughts.  Repetition indicates emphasis.  Brackets and dashes indicate asides for humor, emphasis, empathy, or any number of reasons.

I struggle with that.  I think in ideas, concepts, and frameworks.  I can work out streams of factual words.  I have a hard time expressing my doubts, questions, empathy, confusion, certainty, sarcasm, etc....  I can add many words to clarify every emotional nuance, but the word channel gets overwhelmed and lost in a sea of descriptive flourishes and asides.

I think that this is a large part of the reason why modern writing is so bloated and boring.

Read any good non-fiction book published before 1960 and you will get one complete thought in every sentence.  You won't get that same thought again in the next sentence, or in a sentence in the next paragraph.  The books are generally shorter, but they convey a massive amount of information and ideas.

Read any good non-fiction book published in the last decade and you can easily skip most paragraphs without missing any points.  Authors feel compelled to repeat themselves over and over again.  I think that they are often trying to add all of the non-verbal nuances.  But they are mostly just repeating themselves too much and becoming boring.

I need a new grammar.  Emoticons fail, but they are a step in the right direction.  I need a simple single punctuation mark to indicate sarcasm.  I need a simple single punctuation mark to indicate that I am in pain.  I need a simple single punctuation mark to indicate that I am skeptical.  I need a simple single punctuation mark to indicate that I am exasperated.  (sigh)

I think that this is part of the reason why humans learn better from real life stories than from dry lists of facts.  This is where I would like to go as a writer.  I would like to learn how to translate my dry list of facts into compelling stories.

Aesop was clearly one of the greatest geniuses ever, not just because of his wisdom; but because he communicated that wisdom in stories that people would read and could understand.  Amazing.

The nearest thing I have seen in the modern era is 'The Art of Profitability' by Adrian Slywotzky.  Adrian told the story of a mentor teaching business profitability to a student.  Easy to read and understand.

Fiction has its own mechanisms for conveying emotion.  I'm not proficient with those yet, but I understand them.  I actually think that fiction has become lazy, too.  Too many authors tell you what a person is thinking instead of showing you the non-verbal queues as they speak.  In my fiction writing I endeavor to never tell you what a character is thinking.  Characters act on their thoughts and feelings, even if the act is merely a wince.  That's how people are used to perceiving their worlds and understanding people.

The other side of good fiction is that it has the strength to tell the truth in ways that other writing cannot.  I was struck by this early analysis of Aesop, by Apollonius of Tyana:
"he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events."

* I'm not the first person to argue that language is spoken first.  I just can't find the articles I remember right now.  If you are very interested in that discussion then you can start with this article.  It argues that conventional grammar is applicable only to written words, and that spoken words need to be managed by their own separate grammatical rules.  Same problem, but opposite perspective and solution.

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