By NANCY PATRICK
I have always loved language. I like saying some words, writing others, thinking others, reading many more. I guess my love of language led me to choose an English major in college. I earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English with the goal of teaching it to high school students.
Some of my public school teachers inspired me because of their differences from my family members. I noticed their speech and grammar differed from mine as well. I also observed how my female teachers wore to school what I would have called Sunday clothes. I did not know for sure exactly what made them seem different, but I knew I liked what distinguished them. I guess I fell in love with language during the eighth grade when I intended to correct my English teacher, Mrs. Mallon, for writing this sentence on the board: “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.”
I felt pretty clever when I saw the subject and verb “I/were” did not agree because the singular “I” did not agree with the plural “were.” Thankfully, I didn’t speak up during class but went to Mrs. Mallon at the end of class and asked if she knew she had made the error. She took the opportunity to teach me about subjunctive mood. She earned my respect and appreciation by seeming pleased with my interest rather than feeling irritated by my impertinence.
Although I do not remember specific instruction on composition skills in public school, I know my teachers assigned essays and research projects. I have no idea how well my classmates wrote, but I always received A’s on my papers, giving me confidence in my own skills. My writing ability made it possible for me to win a $500 scholarship during my senior year. My high school counselor suggested that I write a paper about “What Democracy Means to Me” for an AFL-CIO contest; to my surprise, I won the contest.
I became so accustomed to receiving “A’s” on all my compositions that my English teachers in my freshman classes at Hardin-Simmons surprised me by giving me “B’s” on some of my work. The grades puzzled me because the professors did not mark errors in my paper; the comments tended toward “needs further development” or “choppy syntax.” I had never heard these comments before, leaving me unsure about how to improve my writing.
I finally went to one of my favorite professors, Dr. Lawrence Clayton, and asked what he meant by choppy syntax. He explained that my writing style resembled my personality, meaning that everything I did seemed to require speed and energy. Later, during my master’s degree program studying under Dr. Robert Fink, I went to him with my dilemma and asked the big question: “How can I elaborate and develop my ideas while at the same time eliminating my choppy syntax?”
Dr. Fink taught me the magic formula: subordination. I cannot explain how I missed that concept during my formal education, but suddenly development and syntax made complete sense to me. For someone who loves language and has no problem with talking, I felt like I had found a magic wand. The key to effective communication lies in one’s choice of words and the ability to see the relativity of ideas to one another.
Language today has perhaps become more important than at any other time in my life. Our country engages in a war of diction with people selecting words that separate, isolate, agitate, inspire, outrage, outwit, deceive, mislead, prejudice, ridicule, shame, persuade, conciliate, . . . . I cannot end the list because of its infinity. Many people’s language does not aim to communicate but to manipulate. The present time frightens me because of the chasm its language creates.
Why do seemingly intelligent people disagree on simple definitions? For example, one of my teaching objectives involved teaching the difference between fact and opinion. People cannot debate facts whereas they can debate opinions. A fact is provable while an opinion relates to a person’s experience and beliefs. The idea of an “alternate fact” negates the legitimacy of my teaching objective that something is either factual or not.
For example, in the American political scene over the past several months, many have argued over diction such as “quid pro quo” or “collusion.” Neither term is difficult to understand because their definitions do not depend on one’s beliefs or values. The terms have clear meanings related to someone’s actions. The person either did or did not perform a specific deed. Intelligent people should at least acknowledge facts or actions as realities. At that point, they can condemn or condone the act, but at least they have the honesty to recognize the truth of its existence.
Then the argument can move from language to values. If we believe certain people have the right to autonomous behavior without regard for the law, then we should stand up and say so. Disagreement about values pervades society. In fact, value differentiations divide us probably more than any other issue.
Writing and speaking truthfully requires courage because we open ourselves to others who might take offense at our words or tone. If that happens, we can talk about the disagreement intelligently because we acknowledge that our disagreement relates to values rather than facts. This kind of debate requires honest ownership of our values whether or not others agree with them.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.