Using Language to Open Worlds

The Aristocats.If I were to say I saw an O’Malley cat, only three people would know to what I’m referring: my brothers, Nathan and Kyle, and our mom. People who hear me make the comment might try to understand the reference; if they’re in my age range, they might think of The Aristocats. Those people would be drawing closer to the meaning behind “an O’Malley cat,” but they wouldn’t be certain in that knowledge. In fact, they would be wrong. An O’Malley cat is a large, gray tabby. My younger brother had such a cat. His cat was named after the O’Malley found in The Aristocats, but his cat bore no similarities to the Disney one except in name and possibly in temperament.

The O’Malley cat reference is an example of closed language. It has to be explained in order to be understood. While that language might make for some great stories (Who doesn’t like listening to me tell stories about cats?), it isn’t appropriate for business writing or almost any other writing. Language is meant to open worlds, not to close them. It is supposed to invite a person to enter, not to bar that person’s entry. It is meant to immerse a reader in the experience, not to make the reader aware of being an outsider (unless that is the intent behind the writing).

That doesn’t mean writing should be stripped of personal references; far from it. It simply means that the author has to be aware that his or her readers may not understand the reference being made. If that reference is too obscure or too limited in scope, it may need be replaced with something else, something that better serves the writing and the audience.

Comments

  1. Excellent post! I used to use a similar lesson with my students around the use of colloquialisms in their formal writing. I guess I would have to expand that to include texting short forms if I were still teaching today…

    •  @RebeccaTodd Thanks!
       
      I’m afraid you would have to add texting short forms (I like your phrasing for that.) to any classes you taught. I was crushed when I received an invitation to a webinar entitled “OMG! Social media in the workplace!” recently. My co-worker and I had great fun imitating Valley Girls and counting exclamation points, though. 🙂

      •  @Erin F. Ugh that’s rough. I received an email from a publisher of educational language arts resources that used “u” and “r” and “guys!”.  Blech! 

        •  @RebeccaTodd That is dreadful, but I think this article might be of comfort: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2012/06/grammar-dead-long-live-grammar-nerds/53749/. I loved it so much that I shared it on my Facebook page and contacted the author via Twitter. 

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