Monday, April 26, 2010

Straight talk: an example (4) – Richard Mitchell, “The Underground Grammarian”

For educational purposes, we writers should occasionally read or listen to a sample of straight talk. Reading or hearing straight talk wakes us up. It makes us more consciously aware of the evasive, namby-pamby diction that constantly besets us. This awareness, in turn, helps us avoid unconsciously imitating evasive diction.

Here’s an example of straight talk from a man who was famous for it: Richard Mitchell, “The Underground Grammarian.” In this passage from Less Than Words Can Say (1979), Mr. Mitchell explains why schools are afraid to teach children to read and write well:

“Unfortunately, we just don’t know how to teach skillful reading and writing without developing many undesirable and socially destructive side effects. Should we raise up a generation of literate Americans… they’ll start listening very carefully to the words and sentences of the politicians, and they’ll decide that there isn’t one of them worth voting for anywhere on the ballot. There’s no knowing where this will end. The day will come when a President is elected only because those few feebleminded citizens who still vote just happened to bump up against his lever more often than they bumped up against the other guy’s lever. A President, of course, doesn’t care how he gets elected, but he might lose clout among world leaders when they remind him that he owes his high office to the random twitchings of thirty-seven imbeciles. That will be the end of network election coverage as we know it.” (Pages 154-155.)

The Takeaway: Many of us are startled when we read or hear straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction (sample here). I advise you to occasionally take a small dose of straight talk. By contrast, it will help you remain consciously aware of evasive diction – and therefore less likely to unconsciously absorb and imitate evasive diction.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech. Accordingly, I select examples for the diction they contain (occasionally for the amusement they provide), not the ideas they express. I promote no religion and no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

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