June 2008


It’s most obvious with non-native speakers of English. Despite knowing more about English grammar than most native speakers and having a broad recognition vocabulary, they often continue to struggle to construct a workable English sentence.

Why?

Here are some excerpts from a 1985 Donald Hall essay in Newsweek titled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.”

“When we stopped memorizing and reciting literature, our ability to read started its famous decline. It was the loss of recitation – not its replacements (radio, film, television) – that diminished our literacy.”

“If when we read silently we do not hear a text, we slide past words passively, without making decisions….”

“In the old Out-Loud Culture, print was always potential speech; even silent readers too shy to read aloud, inwardly heard the sound of words. Their culture identified print and voice. Everyone’s ability to read was enhanced by recitation. Then we read aggressively; then we demanded sense…”

“As children speak poems and stories aloud, by the pitch and muscle of their voices they will discover drama, humor, passion and intelligence in print.”

As children – and adults – speak poems, stories, essays, and even well-written news articles and business reports aloud, they also hear the natural syntax, phrasing, and rhythm of English. They learn it as music, and just as song lyrics float around in the mind ready to be called upon when needed, this memorized syntax and phrasing will sit upon the tongue when we write.

Most people think reading is the best training for writing, but we write with our ear, not our eye. We voice our sentences onto the page, and the more we train our ears, the better – clearer, more powerful, more dramatic, more musical – our sentencing will be. Reading silently can help us become better editors, help us spot what looks wrong on the page. But as Donald Hall suggests, most silent readers “slide past words passively.” They pick up some meaning from the words (rarely demanding sense) but hear none of the power or nuance or even basic correctness. They don’t hear what sounds bad and what sounds good.

That’s why so much business and government writing is so awful. It isn’t that the writers aren’t educated or don’t care enough to take the time to do a good job. They simply don’t have a trained ear. Wrote Russell Baker in How to Punctuate, “When you write, you make a sound in the reader’s head. It can be a dull mumble–that’s why so much government prose makes you sleepy—or it can be a joyful noise, a sly whisper, a throb of passion.” If you can’t hear it, you can’t write it.

Even native-speaking adults can improve their ear for the music of English. It’s never too late. To train your ear, pick the best examples of the type of writing you want to do and read them aloud. Hear the music—the richness and variety in the sentencing. Then start reading all sorts of things aloud, and hear the difference. Hear and see the tangled, twisted sentence. Hear and see the difference between dull and dramatic repetition. Then read your own writing aloud.

Beyond helping us write sentences that are more natural, musical, and correct, reading aloud helps us “read aggressively and demand sense.” Only then will we begin to write the same way, examining our sentences to ensure the words work together efficiently to make sense.

This clarity is all the more important today as busy writers communicate in short emails, brief blogs, and 140-character Twitter bursts, while busy readers attempt to consume far more than they can stomach in a day.

Whether you’re goal is correctness, clarity, or power, reading aloud will help.

Bonus tip: If you write in MS Word, you can have Windows XP or Vista read back your drafts using text-to-speech. This is a great way to proofread drafts and hear mistakes you might miss when reading. I’ve started creating instructions for this in The Writing Wiki, but could use some help.

Here’s a crude example of text-to-speech:

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One of the great things about English is the room for new words that do what no existing word can do: artsy, carjacking, detox, email, and so on. When I read Maggie Jackson’s comments about the erosion of attention on Marci Alboher’s blog, I knew it was time to introduce a neologism that I’d like to see quickly become standard English. Conjobulation is the state of having so many projects to do and so many errands to run and so many familial pressures to manage and so many interruptions to recover from that sober individuals can be sitting at a stoplight and suddenly have no idea where they are supposed to be going, that they can be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly have no idea what they are talking about, that they can wake in the middle of the night in a panic but have no idea which problem woke them up.

I’d certainly been conjobulated plenty of times, but was stuck with such mundane and limited descriptions as too busy, stressed, harried, swamped and overwhelmed. Words like inundated, drowning, and snowed under were stretches at best and did not have the right feel. Confounded, crazed, and bewildered are great words, but they don’t communicate the external nature of the pressure.

Then one day a couple of years ago, my wife was driving and discussing a number of “issues” and forgot where she was going. A native Spanish speaker who has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, she blurted out that she was conjobulated, and I knew she’d hit upon the perfect word. We have used it successfully ever since – successful in that when one of us says we are conjobulated the other knows precisely what is meant. It certainly captures the erosion of attention and focus that plagues our lives today.

A search on Google has revealed that a couple of others have hit upon this word: here, here, and one I won’t link to, but they don’t seem to have recognized the value of their find. I have added conjobulation to my MS Word dictionary. I suggest you do the same, and I hope you’ll begin using it whenever you get the chance. I’m sure if you use it, even internationally, it will almost always be immediately understood. As soon as I submit this blog post, I’m going to submit conjobulated to the Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary. I hope that some of my favorite language bloggers, such as Dan Santow, John McIntyre, and Language Log, will weigh in on its merit. And any help you can provide – by using it in writing and blogging about it – is appreciated.

By encouraging the adoption of conjobulation, we may actually spur research into how to combat it.

I only hope I’m not too conjobulated to finish this project.