Wednesday, December 16, 2009


The other day I was talking to someone (who shall remain nameless) about language. They told me that they felt English was effectively dead. This was followed by a lengthy rant about how our language has no life, no humor, nothing bright and how it only stifles creativity.

I suggested that they write in Spanish or French, but they didn't like that suggestion.

Now, the reason I'm not going to mock that person by name or post their photo and email address so as not to hog the mockery all for my very own, is that I've been there. That person's in a bad spot in their writing.

Let me not cast that first stone, for I've certainly had moments when my optimism fades and I'm left staring at that hated blinking Microsoft finger flipping me off, casting its little shadow across a blank screen. Mocking me. Oh, how I hate that little cursor.

There are a lot ways I get unstuck and we've talked about those before. Unfortunately, most of them only really work if you're writing fiction. Fiction's a lot easier for unsticking, traction can be invented out of whole cloth. If you're writing nonfiction, what do you do? What if it's a school paper or an annual report?

I do a lot of copywriting and business writing and so forth and don't talk about it much because it's not as fun as talking about literature and mystery novels. So one of the things I haven't mentioned yet is this: Get silly. Play around. Noodle with it. Find the absurdities. Find the fun in your topic.

English isn't dead and absurdity abounds. Go looking for it. Nothing is more absurd than a business report, go find it and have fun with it. English isn't dead, it's borderline crazy. This is why there's no coffee in coffee cake and there are no fairies in fairy cake. Girl Scout cookies contain no Girl Scouts, butterflies are blissfully butter-free. Because truth, you see really is more surreal than fiction and there's room to play. Linguistically, at least, the rules are malleable and the potential for whimsy abounds... especially in a business setting. So maximize those synergies.

I have very little advice for non-fiction, so this is the best I can do -- remind you to play with your language. If it's not fun, you're not going to want to do it and you're going to get stuck sitting at your desk trying to look busy. Make everything fun. Irreverence is fun. So remember that a new vice president isn't a "paradigm shift" and it doesn't get much funnier than a bunch of execs talking about moving cheese. And while we're at it, coffee beans aren't beans and English horns are neither English nor are they horns, which is somehow overshadowed by the fact that French horns are really German. So be a little nuts if you need the boost. It's okay, you can always delete the whimsy later if it doesn't fit the desired tenor of the piece. (There's only so much room for knock-knock jokes in your annual reports.)

Play with your language. And if anyone has a problem with it, tell them I sent you. (And while their trying to figure out who I am, make your escape under cover of their confusion.)

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).