Have you ever come across a book called The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase? It is probably a bit dated now but is still interesting reading. At the beginning of that book he tells how a revolution in his thinking occurred when he realised that for some years he had been making a living by writing words and selling them without ever having asked himself questions about what language is. Words were the tools of his trade, he wrote, but he had never really considered what sort of ‘things’ they were. That book is an account of what he found out after he began to ask the questions he had for so long ignored.
When I first read The Tyranny of Words, it made a great impression on me; it was one of the books that operated on my mind in the way I referred to on an earlier page. It led me to read other books on the subject. It also influenced my teaching and writing for many years. And it certainly led me to the conclusion that the first step towards acquiring a mature style of writing is to get some basic facts about language straight. The facts that seem basic to me now are not exactly those that Chase’s book suggested. Fortunately they are simpler.
Let’s begin with a very simple word — ‘table’. I am sitting at one now because my desk is covered with sheets of diagrams arranged in an order that I do not want to disturb at the moment.
From the words in that sentence you have already formed some kind of picture of the situation in which I am working. The key words that have enabled you to build up a picture in your mind are
Largely because of these key words, you have in your mind a picture which may be extremely vague at this moment but which, if you bring it into finer focus, which you can easily do, will include the following details:
There is a chair at which a man is sitting. In front of him on a table is a paper on which he is writing in which case he will have a pen or pencil in his hand and a computer and printer to print.
There is a desk as well as a table in the room. On the desk there are sheets of paper covered with diagrams. These sheets have been arranged in a particular order.
You have not been told that the table is in a room; it might be in the shade of a tree in a garden. But you have assumed that it is in a room. You have not been told that the desk is in the same room as the chair and the table, but you assumed that it is.
Since your assumption is that I am writing in a room, you have some vague picture in your mind of walls, ceiling and window.
You have in fact read a fair amount into my printed words.
Part of what you have read into them accords with the facts.
On the other hand, certain of the details you have read into my words are assumptions — reasonable assumptions, of course, but you know very well that they might turn out to be wrong.
What you do not know about my present situation, however, could fill a book.
Your assumption that the desk and table are both in one room is correct. But what about the size of the room? Had you in your mental picture any idea of size? You assumed the existence of the walls and ceiling. Did you go so far as to give them a colour? That is doubtful. And lighting? Did you think of it being day-time with light coming through a window? You would not find it difficult to compile a list of fifty legitimate questions about my situation to all of which you would have to give the answer: ‘I don’t know.’
But our concern at the moment is with the word ‘table’.
Into it you have read something, though in a vague sort of way. You have perhaps given your imaginary table a certain position in this room you have thought up as mine, but it is unlikely that you have bothered about its shape. And yet you would have had some idea of its size: you would not have thought of it as big enough for a round-table conference nor as small enough for children in a nursery class. But even about the table scores of questions could be asked to which you could not give an answer. What sort of wood is it made of? How old is it? Has it got a special non-scratch top? Is there a drawer in it? What did it cost?
I don’t know the answer to all these questions myself.
The first of my basic facts, then, is that you can expect anyone who reads anything you have written to put into it information derived from his own past experience. Some of what he puts into your words will match the facts you had in your mind when you wrote the words; some of it will consist of assumptions on his part which may or may not conflict with the facts, and some of it may be irrelevant from your point of view.
The second basic fact is that even with a simple word like ‘table’ there may be a difference between what the writer has in mind when he uses that word in a particular context and what the reader has in mind when he reads it. The outstanding characteristic of this table in my mind, for example, is that it has a black non scratch-able top. I doubt very much if that was a feature of the table as you saw it in your mind.
The next fact we come to is that our two different ideas of the table are different from the table itself. Yours is obviously different from the table if you did not imagine it as having a black top but mine is also different from the table itself; it does not include everything about it that it is humanly possible to include. A detective squad could come here for example and in a short time discover finger-prints on it that I would never have noticed. A thorough-going expert in wood could certainly say what kind of tree the wood came from. An expert in organic chemistry could produce a chemical formula that would record with fair precision the constituents of the wood. So my idea of the table, though more detailed than yours, is still very different from the thing itself.
Furthermore, your idea of the table is a series of mental events in your brain; mine is a series of mental events in my brain. The table itself is not a series of mental events. Chemists and physicists might indeed describe it as a series of atomic and molecular events, but neither you nor I are likely to believe that the chair I am sitting on is a series of events inside your head, my head or anyone else’s.
This is ground that writers about writing seldom tread upon though it is well trampled by philosophers. At the same time, as I hope to show you, this aspect of the relationship between ideas about things and things themselves is of great importance to anyone who intends to try to improve his ability in the writing of English.
This is an exercise in awareness of the ‘other mind’. You are given certain statements. Read them carefully and, on the basis of what you have from this article so far, say which of them you think 1 believe to be true. Note: the question is not whether you think they are true but whether you think I think so. Here are the statements.
1. There are many ways in which ideas may be transferred from the mind of one man to that of another — writing, pictures, gesture, signs and signal. Mario Pei in All About Language.
2. If you are going to get the most out of your reading you will have to get out of the habit of reading things into other people’s words.
3. The effect a writer’s words has on his readers is more important than his adherence to grammatical rules.
4. A really good dictionary gives you the complete meanings of words.
5. If a person cannot distinguish between such obviously different things as a preposition and an adverb, he cannot write consistently good English.
6. People can’t be blamed for reading things into what you write or say.
7. If I choose my words carefully I can convey a precise picture of a particular scene to you.
8. All that is necessary for me to understand a word is to have had experience of the thing the word stands for.
9. Most of our information is second- or third- hand.
10. You won’t find the meaning of a word in any dictionary; you’ll merely find other words which usually lead you to the meaning.
Compare Your Answers:
1. Not true; it merely seems to be true, Mario P though he has written several books on language, has not thought of this particular aspect of it. You might think that there is a difference between a picture and a word in this respect, but even the picture requires interpretation and interpretation is the bringing of past experience to bear upon the situation. The only past experience you can bring to bear is your own.
2. If ‘reading things into’ means ‘reading the wrong things into’, then this is a true statement — but with stern limitations. The implication of the statement is that when you are not reading the wrong things into a piece of writing you are taking the right meaning out of it. This is impossible. The upshot of all this is that if a true statement can be made by someone who does not know what he is talking about, then this is one. Had the statement been put the other way round, it would have rung the bell with me, viz. ‘… get into the habit of reading the right things into other people’s words.’
3. Very nearly a straightforward ‘yes’ to this, but with the comment that the effect of a writer’s words may itself be affected by his adherence or non-adherence to grammatical rules. You is not going to pay much attention to this here article if I doesn’t give you some indication that I knows my grammar, is you?
4. No. No dictionary gives you the meanings of any words; it gives you definitions or equivalents. A definition consists of words that direct you usually to a class of things; an equivalent is another word that has approximately the same meaning as the one you don’t know. In either case it is a matter of words that are linked with your experience; the meaning for you lies in the experience not in the dictionary.
5. Quite wrong on two counts: 1.Preposition and adverbs are by no means obviously different; many a preposition has an adverbial quality to it. Children sometimes show that they sense this as when they say ‘It fell off of the table’ instead of ‘ fell off the table’. ‘Off of’ is a separation of the adverbial from the prepositional force in the ‘off’ as adults use it. 2. Although a reasonably precise knowledge of grammatical ideas is useful to any writer, there is no absolute need for a person to know• the grammatical names before he can write competently. A considerable number of new grammatical terms have been devised in recent years. Shakespeare and others who had no means of knowing these new terms are still as good writers as ever they were.
6. Right. Re-read answer on 2.
7. False. You can’t ‘convey’ a picture; you can send verbal signals which will enable your reader to create his own picture. That’s one count on which it is wrong. For the other: it depends how precise you take ‘precise’ to be.
8. False. You certainly need experience of the ‘thing’, but you need more than that — experience of the word in association with the ‘thing’.
9. Take this to mean that only a small part of our experience is direct and you can count it right. ‘Second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, hand would have been more accurate. You learned about the Battle of Hastings from a school text-book, shall we say — and where did the writer of the text-book learn about it? Note, however, that this does not mean that the idea of the Battle of Hastings was transmitted to you. You built up your picture of it and your concepts from your analogous experiences even a fight in a school playground may have been the start of your idea of what a battle is.
10. True. See answer on 4.