Tag Archives: words

Nuance starts with N

Nuance is subtle. It lives between things. A shade off centre, just off balance, not as simple as you thought, it is the complexity of life.

In Academic Writing, nuance is usually a good thing. Life is complicated. Academics know this, and work hard at fitting all that complexity into their work.


A couple of years ago, Kieran Healy suggested that in his field (sociology) there was too much Nuance. This over-abundance of Nuance tended to obstruct clear thinking. Healy presented a conference paper about this problem with the not-so-subtle title “Fuck Nuance.” In summary, Healy thinks Nuance impedes Theory. Powerful theories need less nuance as theories look for similarities, not shades of minute difference.

Healy makes an interesting case. I was all ready to write about how academic writing could use MORE nuance, not less. Clearly I need to be more precise in my suggestion. Perhaps some aspects of academic writing could use more nuance. Descriptive work, history writing, detailed ethnographic observations, all these need detail and depth. These call for nuance. Theory as it develops from observations needs to shed the detail, to look for patterns and similarities, and so needs less nuance. The theorist needs to decide what the important differences are, pay attention to those. Yes, theory is thus less shaded than description, but perhaps it is more powerful, useful, applicable if less nuanced.

Nuance is also an aspect of writing. Choosing just the right word or phrase and getting it right makes all the difference in the world. The New York Times knows this too.

Nuance: it is a many-shaded thing.

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If it is L, it must be Language

Yesterday I was reading along in my current brain candy book (Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King if you must know) and came upon a felicitous phrase. I stopped and savoured the phrase. “There are only six results, a very small catch in the vast fishy sea of the Internet…” I sat in the coffee shop, sipped my double cappuccino and smiled at the image of “the vast fishy sea of the Internet.” Nice work Mr. King. Well put. Words are fun, and words well connected can be beautiful. I wish more academics tried to find felicitous phrases for their work.

In my (becoming) infamous Epistemology post I talked about Language and how words help us figure out what we know. In that post there is a long quotation from Rowan Williams’s book, The Edge of Words, about the interplay between words and knowledge. That book is one of the best I’ve read on the importance of Language. It is not the easiest book to read – there’s lots to think about. As I read it I had to keep stopping to think. If I was with someone, I’d read out the paragraph that made me stop to think. Not everyone found the ideas as fascinating as I did, but if you like Language, find a copy of the book. Read it.

Recently I’ve read some different books that deal with Language. In the one I’ve not yet finished, one language, an alien tongue spoken by exotics from another world, is always called Language. It has a capital L. Native speakers of Language cannot lie. Humans who learn to speak Language (and only a few humans can actually do so) can lie in Language. Native Language speakers find this ability fascinating, and try to do it themselves. Because Language does not allow for lies, Metaphor is impossible. Metaphors are lies. Similes are possible in Language if the point of comparison actually exists. The point-of-view character in the book has been enshrined in Language as a Simile because she performed an action at one time. One Simile in the book has to repeat his action every week so the verb-tense in his simile is correct. I’m only half-way through, so I’m not sure where this book is going, but lets just say that there is a Language-centred Crisis on the planet in question. If you want more of this, read Embassytown by China Miéville.

In two other books, both by Salmon Rushdie, language games and stories told play a large part in the narratives. Haroun and the Sea of Stories has more language games. The sequel, Luka and the Fire of Life refers to more cultural stories and traditions. Both of these books exemplify the beauties of language in many ways. You should go read them.

Language is an enormous part of who we are and how we think. We forget that sometimes because it is so close to us and obvious. Sometimes books that tell us stories about Language, or play with language, or take us to the edge of words help us remember how vital language is to us, and how beautiful it can be.

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E…e…e…e… Epistemology!

Epistemology starts with E.

You know that is a good thing. But how do you know? That is the really big question isn’t it. How do you know? Epistemology. That’s how you know.

Now, if you google “How do you know” you find a movie, and apparently “That’s How you Know” is some kind of movie song. Knowing if someone really loves you is all anyone actually wants to know, at least on the internet. Epistemology doesn’t help with that. I bet you could do well if you wrote a song on Epistemology – there aren’t enough philosophy songs in the world. Oh wait! There’s a song called Epistemology!! Humph, never mind, it is mostly about love again.

OK, Epistemology, how you know. Words are part of figuring out what we know. Language is how we express what we know, but also how we find it out in the first place. Here is a long and interesting quote from Rowan Williams that plays around with language being part of how we know:

“Yet language is unmistakeably a material process, something that bodies do; so thinking harder about the oddities of language may help us see new things about bodies, indeed about ‘matter’ in general; it may open up for us some thoughts about how the material world carries or embodies messages, how matter and meaning do not necessarily belong in different universes. And the sheer diversity of the ways in which meaning is embodied and communicated should leave us with some puzzles over the way in which speech generates such a huge amount of apparently superfluous untidiness and eccentricity. Instead of moving calmly towards a maximally clear and economical depiction of the environment, our language produces wild and strange symbolisms, formal and ritual ways of talking (not just in religion), a passion for exploring new perspectives through metaphor and so on. Unsurprisingly, it also learns how to use gaps in its flow, moments either of frustration or of overwhelmingly full significance, moments when we are brought to silence, as part of its continuing search for an adequate response to what is ‘given’, the search for ways of ‘making sense’.” [From the introduction to The Edge of Words, Bloomsbury, 2014.]

E is for Epistemology, a word that stands for all the ways we explore what we know and how we know it. Words help us make sense of the world. Part of the way we know what we know is by talking about it. Epistemology: more than just another love song.

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That’s right, cite is today’s word, as in cite your sources properly. Always provide citations, not sightations. The trick with cite is it has homophones. They tend to throw people off their game. Let’s review these tricky sound-alike words.

CITE – the word for today, refers to listing or naming the source of a quotation.

SIGHT – has to do with seeing, and if it is a noun, it could be something that you see, often that is extraordinary. Tourists go see the sights of the place they are visiting.

SITE – has to do with a location in space, or cyberspace. An archeological site is the place people are digging. A website is a location in cyberspace.

To really mess it up, it is possible to cite the site you caught sight of the other day. Or you could sight-see at the archeological site you saw discussed in the article you cited.

One more time:

CITE – make references to books or other sources of information

SIGHT – the ability to see the things around you or (possibly) the things you are looking at around you.

SITE – locations in geographical or cyberspace.

Don’t mix them up.

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Widely vs Well Read

A definition of the term “well-read” plus a reading list to make one “well-read” in the eyes of the list-producer has recently been reposted. In the comments people have, as they will, disputed the inclusion of particular books on this list. I want to dispute the term “well-read.” I think the book list provided will give anyone who pursues it reading BREADTH, that is, it will make them widely read. It may not make them well-read.

I read a lot. I’ve finished 140 books so far this calendar year. Though this is the greatest number of books I’ve finished since I started keeping a record, I still read a lot every year. I have read and re-read many books in my life. I’m pretty sure that I am not well-read, but widely read. The list linked above has 33 books I’ve read, many that I’ve got on my to be read pile, plus the list names three authors I’ve read, just not the books on the list. That list of 100 also includes four books that I have no interest at all in reading, and have decided I will not read.

I think decisions about what I will or will not read start shifting me into the well-read zone. If I read widely to me that means that I read a lot of books, of a variety of genres, from different time periods, and am open to trying new books that are out of my usual range. I think I do this. Being WELL read, to me, implies some moral content; it includes some aspect of goodness or truth or beauty. Reading well means reading with these qualities in mind. It means being discerning about content and style. It may mean not reading some books, and having reasons for this.

Of course, books are differently understood with experience. I’ve talked about this, and so have other people. I read differently because I’m older than the average person who seems to write about books for popular online book pages, or produces lists for flavorwire or buzzthingy. I like hearing about the reading experiences of people who are not my age, don’t get me wrong. Most of the really good book conversations I’ve had are with people younger than I. But, lists curated by mostly younger people can have a sameness about them. Or am I just cranky and crazy?


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Reading 1984

I finally read 1984, that book everyone read in high school except my class, which read Animal Farm instead. We were the class of ’84, maybe the teacher was being sensitive? Right. So at my advanced age, I read this for the first time. Overall reaction: Meh. I can see why the book has been deemed Important Literature, I can see the prophetic nature of the work, I can see ways that some of the ideas continue to be important in the twenty-first century. I can better appreciate the photos of a young woman reading the book at a protest in Iran. But I didn’t like it. I found the hopelessness too much. I wanted Smith to do better in the end. I think people could do better.

How could people do better? On the bus ride home today, I first read the Appendix to 1984 describing Newspeak (more of that in a moment). Then I turned to my back-up book (I knew I’d finish 1984 before I got home), Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. I’ve mentioned this book in this space before. Today I began to read a chapter called “Practice Poetry.” This is stewardship strategy #8. Why read poetry? The author argued that the most persuasive reason in her mind is “reading and writing are survival skills. If we learn the skills involved in reading closely, attentively, imaginatively, if we understand the demands of a poem and respond to them, we are better equipped to negotiate flexibly, distinguish what is authentic from what is false, and make discerning decisions.” What a great counterpoint to the lit-free world of Orwell’s dystopia. Embrace poetry! It saves the world!


A note on Newspeak: In the appendix to 1984, the pared down language of Newspeak is described. In it the idea of a verb/noun is introduced. This verb/noun can then be changed to an adjective or adverb by adding the suffixes -ful or -wise respectively. AHA! This is why I hate the word “impactful.” It is a Newspeak adjective! Flee the formation of Newspeak adjectives! Use real words!!


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Tell the truth and Don’t tolerate lies

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s word stewardship strategies 2 and 3 go together. They are “Tell the Truth” and “Don’t Tolerate Lies.” Recall that number 1 was Love Words. I’ll come back to that one shortly.

In her second strategy (Tell the Truth) we are responsible to tell the truth. This doesn’t mean obscure the truth by talking in the vaguest possible terms. It doesn’t mean carefully constructing what we say so that we don’t actually say what we mean. It means saying what we mean. McEntyre provides some great examples of precise and careful writing that tell the truth in ways that vague or hyperbolic reporting. She suggests looking for just the right verb. She also suggests truth telling means not always speaking. Here is the bit I liked best from the chapter. I read it waiting for my bus. I stopped reading and read this part again. It made me smile.

In reading a recent novel, I myself was convicted by a comment the mother makes to her adult daughter: “My dear, you’ve missed so many opportunities to say nothing.” We do miss those opportunities, as well as opportunities to say less and say it more judiciously. And so we miss the particular delights of finding words and speaking them into silences big enough to allow them to be heard.

So good — “the particular delights of finding words and speaking them into silences big enough to allow them to be heard.” Truth telling involves making the silences big enough for truth to be heard, not shouting above the din.

In the very next chapter though, McEntyre reminds us not to tolerate lies. We need to weigh what we are told. What do we believe? Who do we trust? How do we know? How do we speak truth in a culture that is addicted to lies, hyperbole, and spin? We’d rather crawl into a hole until the train wreck of the latest political scandal (why must everything be a scandal?) blows over. But we also have a responsibility to be engaged citizens. What does that mean? We have to do the work of figuring that out. If we do nothing, that is a decision with moral consequences.

The other day, just after I posted about my intolerance for the word “impactful” (I can hardly bear to write it), I was at a gathering of family and friends. RABrother used the word “impactful” in a sentence. I was shocked. RABro is a writer and thinker. He does not generally throw jargon around. I objected to the word. My friends immediately all began using the word “impactful” in sentences of their own so that I wouldn’t take myself too seriously. We moved on to the story of the event that had impacted my brother’s life. It was ironic. I thought you might like the story.

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Words are Important

True confessions: I’ve yet to read 1984 by George Orwell. It wasn’t on my high school reading list. I think I should read it because the idea of newspeak as portrayed in the novel seems prophetic. I’m currently reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. After a bleak beginning Marilyn Chandler McEntyre gives twelve word stewardship strategies. Strategy number 1 is Love words. I do love words. But I also hate some words. I think that is ok. Here is my argument.

Languages change over time. We need new words to talk about new things. An automobile is a relatively new thing, so a new word was coined for the invention. Some other words and phrases around the new horseless carriage sprang up, and some fell quickly by the wayside. A century later in North America we mostly talk about cars. All this to say that change happens.

There is a new word floating around which is unnecessary, and, I think, is another pompous attempt by some people to sound like they know what they are talking about. The word? Impactful. I hate the very sound of it.

This word is unnecessary. You can use other words in its place. If you need to have the connotation of an impact (smack!) than you can say that something had an impact on the other thing. If you mean that something was actually influential, then say that. When you say “impactful” it sounds like you have no idea what you actually mean.

There is some opinion that “impactful” is here to stay. I hope in 25 years we will think of it as a temporary and minor aberration in the history of English. After all, if the revered website “Urban Dictionary” says that impactful is a fake, it must be true. And fake words go away after a while. Right?

By the way, if you include the word “impactful” in written work that I grade, that word will have a negative impact on your grade.

[This web-post was inspired by listening to some academics talk. Their use of vocabulary influenced me to write about using words well.]

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Real Words

My friend the Constant Reader linked to a blog post on the way we use words in Christian circles on facebook this morning. I quite like this post. It reminds me that words are important.

It also reminds me of a book I have been meaning to read, also about the importance of words. I read the first ten pages and really liked it, It made me think. Since that bus ride where I dipped into it, I’ve not made time for it. It is important to make time for books one thinks are important. I’m about to move this book up on my to be read pile. Possibly it will be summer reading, the kind of summer reading one actually does rather than only talking about.

Why are words important? And which books make you think that you should be reading right now?

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Cool (On Words and Their Use)

Yesterday and today there were substantial discounts on books at the bookshop where I work. I picked up a book I’d had my eye on for some time: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I read the introductory material and ten pages of the first chapter on the bus ride home yesterday. I’m hooked. McEntyre’s point is that language matters. It is a life-giving resource, but we can mis-use it. McEntyre wants us to be active in preserving and restoring language, using words with care and precision, not tossing them out as though they were worthless. In the first ten pages (all I’ve read remember) McEntyre decries the over-use, and so degradation, of words including wonderful, great, fantastic, incredible, and awesome. McEntrye most regrets the mis-use of awesome, as did my father, who often said “Only God is awesome.” Now, though, saying God is awesome doesn’t have the same ring as it once did. Is God awesome like those shoes you just bought, or like the dinner you ate at that new restaurant, or like the new song you really enjoyed on the radio? No. But since we use awesome for all those occasions, we make the comparison. Awesome has lost its particular nuance.

I stopped reading after McEntyre’s list of (great, wonderful) hyperbolic words we over-use because I thought about my dad and his reflections on the mis/over-use of awesome. Then I tried to think of more words that I might misuse or overuse in my own particular dialect. (Do all of us have our own particular ways of speaking? Can we call that a dialect? Probably not. There, I’ve already misused a word!) I came up with “cool” as a word I use without reference to its dictionary definition, and in fact, I probably don’t use “cool” to speak of temperature at all.

I thought of two ways I use the word “cool.” First, it can mean “I understand you, have no objections to what you have said, and in fact like what you have proposed.” Example conversation: Friend to me – “Let’s go to Alternative Grounds for iced coffee.” Me to friend – “Ok, cool.” Second, cool can mean “I really like this object or person, he/she/it is interesting and fun.” Example: I download iAnnotate, like what it does, and describe the app as So. Cool. I don’t think I use cool to mean anything else. If I’m talking about the weather, I’ll say it is not warm, or chilly, or cold. I’ll say a bit cold not cool. I’ll say that hot water or coffee has cooled off, but I won’t say the coffee is too cool to drink. It is too cold to drink. I’ve lost the temperature reference of “cool” in my world of words. Hmmm. This is interesting.

What words do you over- or mis-use?


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