Uncluttering the house of the mind

From First Things blog comes this timely challenge to use language carefully, thoughtfully, and truthfully.  Here is a little of the article:
…But it is not enough to resolve to be truthful, and to dedicate oneself to sincere and authentic communication with others. Unless we master the meaning, the structure, the grammar and syntax of our language, we are easy prey for the manipulations of others, vulnerable to bad arguments, apt to get mired in muddled thinking, and thus not as capable of “reflection and choice” in our lives as we should be. As [a] German thinker, the linguist Uwe Poerksen, has put it, certain expressions, familiar turns of phrase, and the blurry concepts they convey become “the everyday prison of perception” for us,our very reality because we do not possess the tools to break free.This may seem an exaggeration, the idea that language should have such power over us, or that we need to have such power over it. But it is no exaggeration. As the late “underground grammarian” Richard Mitchell once said, “Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious. To be conscious is to ‘know with’ something, and a language of some sort is the device with which we know.”Here, then, are some words of advice on language, intended for those who would like to exercise “reflection and choice” as human beings and citizens, rather than be the manipulated victims of “accident and force.” I’ll make just four points, though I could mention many more.
First: Learn the precise meanings, the spellings, the etymologies, the histories of the language you use.
Second: Strive to be plain and direct in your own writing and speaking, with an active voice, and no reliance on buzzwords, catchphrases, or bureaucratic barbarisms.
Third: Plain direct expression is not the enemy of complex thinking, nor of beauty. …
And I will rely on Sayers again, for a point I could not possibly put so well as she:
 The test of good writing is a simple one. If a sentence puzzles or startles you, pull it to pieces. If it is good writing, then the harder you pull, the more tightly you will discover it to be woven together, and the more closely you examine it, the more meaning it will yield. But it if tumbles to bits easily—if you find its syntax dislocated, its epithets imprecise, its meaning vague or contradictory—then it is bad, and should be quickly thrown into the dustbin of oblivion; one should not keep rubbish lying about in the house of the mind.“
The house of the mind”—isn’t that a wonderful image? Language is how we furnish that house, and it won’t do to let the house fill up with junk.
Fourth: Try not to commit “verbicide.” 

“Verbicide” means what it sounds like, the murder of a word, which [C.S]Lewis said can be accomplished in a number of ways. The “greatest cause of verbicide,” he wrote, “is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive, and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative—useless synonyms for good or for bad. …”

You can see that I have come back around to where I began these reflections on language, with some observations on political things. For the act of verbicide seems to be especially rampant in that field where our political reflection and choice are concerned. But I want to stress, as strongly as I can, that precision, plain directness, what Sayers called “correctness and comeliness,” and respect for the life and integrity of words are all indispensable for thoughtful living in every activity of life. With attention to how you express yourself and how others express themselves, the house of your mind can be kept uncluttered, your thoughts unencumbered by falsehood and error of every kind, and your soul better equipped to meet life’s accidents with the responses that befit a free person.


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