Print

"The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." That was an insight given us by Lewis Carroll, who used language and stories to make points of logic (or illogic). I probably appreciated his writings more as an adult than as a boy. Today, more than any other time I remember, imprecise, overstated, half-complete and, yes, "slovenly" language confronts us daily in the media. Editors-or word processing programs-are careful to catch errors in spelling and grammar, but rarely catch problems of "slovenly language," unless checking for potentially libelous or obscene "red flag" words.

Such writing results in confusing or obtuse articles, newspaper columns, letters to the editor, textbooks, and, this campaign year, political rhetoric. We live in a world where it's already tough to wade through the values to make any sense of the stuff of which ethics are made. The media throw out words to make headlines and news teasers that grab our eyeballs, but which may mean little. It makes it hard to carefully analyze arguments when the logic is built on the crooked crumbling bricks of cockeyed phrases and words dug out of dictionaries whose meanings exist only in the writer's head. And, when the logic is faulty, so too is the reader's or user's ability to extract meaning and values, or discern any semblance of ethics.

I recall a student who once turned in to me a term paper full of nonsense words, misspellings and an assortment of words that didn't fit. My first impression was that he wrote while in collaboration with recreational drugs. But, trying not to judge his habits, I called him into my office and asked why he chose such strange words, many of which didn't really exist.

He told me he studied Lewis Carroll, who had once written Humpty Dumpty to say, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less." "That's what I've done on my paper," he assured me. "Lewis Carroll would be proud." He chose to have words mean what he'd like them to mean, notwithstanding that this would leave the reader clueless. Being the conventional old cuss that I am, I had him rewrite it in a more familiar language. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. After all, Carroll also had the Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland assure Alice, "Tut, tut, child ... Everything's got a moral if only you can find it."

This year's political rhetoric is not so much slovenly as it is carefully deceptive, sometimes with emotion-bearing words, sometimes with carefully crafted double meaning. Then those who are negatively affected by such language devices complain with their own language, using the same devices of distortion.

The whole thing is not unlike the crafting of fine weapons of war. Values and ethics are laid aside while the focus is on the design and building of the weapons, with the resulting peril to our thinking as significant as the infamous "weapons of mass destruction." It begins with the craft of raw materials: in language, words; in weaponry, metal. Then to a more refined substance: sentences/polished steel. The writer is not unlike the old blacksmith. A colleague once told me that he wrote like a blacksmith wielding a hammer. He loved the pounding, the whacking, the thumping, and the shoving them all together, chiseling out the superfluous slag. He loved to see the sparks fly. He liked the feel of the resulting smooth, sleek sentences, masterfully crafted. His resulting paragraphs were a beauty to behold, masterpieces that were better than magnificent buildings or aesthetic art.

Continuing with this analogy, the words and sentences, or steel and weapons are then delivered to the final inspector who checks for flaws, and is known often to throw the whole effort back where it started. Because much of the world finds itself without such editors or inspectors; the slovenliness goes unchecked into a Jabberwocky cacophony of tangled meaning, warped values and twisted ethics.

During the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan noted that "art is anything you can get away with." It could be argued that today "ethics is anything you can get away with," and it stems from our careless use of language-to have words (and thus ideas) mean whatever we choose them to mean. Nice idea for Lewis Carroll, but a disturbing scenario for a society that prides itself on being civilized and educated. For example: "The 'F word' isn't obscenity, it's merely an expletive." "Howard Stern is just like Oprah!" "Janet Jackson: oops, faux pas. 'Wardrobe malfunction'?-did I really see what I think I saw? No matter."

Writing and ideas are sometimes more elaborate and complex than they need to be. The plague of contemporary writing is redundancy, puffery, exaggeration, hyperbole and, did I mention, redundancy. Writers may be producing a specific number of words to meet an editor's quota.

More often, however, information is too simplified, brief and overly generalized. Wham, bam! Headlines pushed into narrative! No grammar, no logic, no thinking, no values, no ethics! It may be the fault of the medium itself, which demands specific constraints of size. Perhaps it's our hurried selves that have little time for information gathering and even less for thinking. But is the resulting slovenly thinking better than no thinking at all?

The subject of imprecise language isn't a conventional subject of study for media ethicists. But it ought to be! Sure, that's easy for a codger from the last generation to say, back when literature was a part of learning language, meaning and ethics. Today's ethics faculty may be less interested in bringing the seemingly foreign subject of language into our ethics analyses. Nevertheless, the challenge is here for readers of Media Ethics to take up the question and debate how writing and the use of language fits into the all-critical media ethics courses or curricula.

*Val E. Limburg is professor emeritus in the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication of Washington State University and has written for MEDIA ETHICS about the teaching of communication ethics. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp. 8,21.