“What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness”

Isn’t that a great headline?

Stan Dubinsky sends out a lot of cool stuff to read via e-mail. You should ask to be on his list — if you’ve got time to read the stuff. I don’t really, but I do tend to glance at the headlines to see if anything draws me in (which, Journalism 101 here, is what headlines are for). And “What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness” definitely did the job.

And the piece was worth reading. An excerpt:

What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness

The decline and fall of American English, and stuff

I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.

Uh-oh. It was a classic case of Vagueness, the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century. Squirrel Woman sounded like a high school junior, but she appeared to be in her mid-forties, old enough to have been an early carrier of the contagion. She might even have been a college intern in the days when Vagueness emerged from the shadows of slang and mounted an all-out assault on American English.

My acquaintance with Vagueness began in the 1980s, that distant decade when Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York and I was writing his speeches. The mayor’s speechwriting staff was small, and I welcomed the chance to hire an intern. Applications arrived from NYU, Columbia, Pace, and the senior colleges of the City University of New York. I interviewed four or five candidates and was happily surprised. The students were articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their writing samples were excellent. The young woman whom I selected was easy to train and a pleasure to work with. Everything went so well that I hired interns at every opportunity.

Then came 1985….

Undergraduates… seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness….

We all note, and many of us decry, what social media have done to (and for; there’s an upside as well) effective and elegant use of language. But I found this piece interesting because it went far beyond that, and identified an insidious enemy not only to communication, but to clear thought as well.

That enemy is Vagueness.

17 thoughts on ““What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness”

  1. Brad

    That piece, by the way, is by Clark Whelton, “was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani…”

    Which means he’s an OLD guy, maybe even almost as old as I.

    I would have said, “… as me,” but there’s always the chance that someone like Clark Whelton (or perhaps I should say “such as Clark Whelton,” since the set of people to which I refer could actually include him) will read this comment and correct me…

  2. Karen McLeod

    Jennifer, that’s what we have emoticon’s for 🙂

    Brad, I am coming to the conclusion that what my mama used to call “The King’s English” (which was what I spoke, or else…) is in the process of devolving into a multiplicity of dialects which may, in time, become entirely separate languages. I say “devolving” because it makes it harder for each group to understand the people in the other groups, although there may be multiple groups within the same political/commercial/geographical area. It will be interesting to see how these languages evolve; however we need to have a common language, and that is precisely what we are losing. In the process, vagueness becomes a social out which prevents possible misunderstanding, because there’s nothing to understand. Yhe person using it has successfully filled a social vacuum which allows those to whom the conversation is directed to attibute to it whatever values or content they wish without any danger of anyone becoming upset or angry. After all, it leaves the original speaker able to say, “that’s not what I meant” if someone attributes negative meanings to the original statement. Thus squirrel lady can talk about her experience without having anyone challenge her about environmental concerns, squirrel overpopulation, rabies control, or even squirrel purloo.

  3. bud

    The spoken language has pretty much gone the way of the buggy whip. It just isn’t needed much anymore. And when it is used by the Gen Y folks it is positively incoherent.

    But I have hope for the written language. Texting and e-mails have opened up a vast new way to push language forward into a more streamlined and efficient force with which to communicate. It’s a bit daunting but I can see a time when we are able to communicate vast amounts of information on something the size of a postcard. Wouldn’t that be cool.

  4. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    “Ask Marilyn” vos Savant wrote in Sunday’s Parade that the use of “like” was merely an indicator that the speaker was not giving a direct quote (I know *I* can’t give precise quotations of conversations I’ve had), instead giving a general impression. I have overheard plenty of excruciatingly detailed exegeses of past conversations younger people have had, and as with most random conversations–there’s no there there to begin with. I seldom have significantly detailed, report-worthy conversations even at Rotary, where the people are ever so serious, sincere and specific. I am only a few years older than an undergraduate of 1985, yet I do not agree that speakers have gotten *more* vague. There’s plenty of “thingamabobby/dohickey” speech among my elders.

    I mean, like, whatever,

  5. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    My query, Mr. Language Person, is why people like Rahm Emanuel say they are “humbled” by election results where they won by a landslide, or Cathy Novinger in today’s paper, where they are lauded for being good citizens as well as good businesspeople.

    I would have thought that falling down, losing your job, getting arrested, etc., were “humbling” experiences; winning is an elevating experience.

  6. Brad

    I’ll have you know that on Stan’s planet, what you see in that picture is perfectly normal…

    Kathryn, my understanding of that use of “humbled” is that one is overwhelmed by the kindness, consideration, support, whatever of the people who voted for/nominated you. Those people are so awesome, and so good to you, you feel small in comparison to their compliment to you.

    Or something like that.

  7. Brad

    Oh, and as for my saying that social media and such can actually PROMOTE the language in some ways (while certainly not in others) — yes, I meant what Bud said, about they encourage people to at least use written communication in SOME form.

    But I also mean that, for instance, Twitter actually encourages virtuous writing habits — such as brevity and focus. I take that up another notch by refusing (except when desperate) to use shortcuts such as “2” for “to” or “R” for “are,” and try to make my messages make sense, using real words in a logical manner. Not always full sentences, but proper headlines anyway.

    As I’ve said before, the challenge of writing cleanly and well within the 140-character limit imposes a discipline that can actually challenge the brain, and one’s language faculties, in a positive way — like writing haiku.

    That’s what I find addictive about Twitter. Or one thing, anyway.

  8. Phillip

    Karen is really onto something, I think, with her take.

    @Bud: Efficiency and streamlined-ness have their uses in communication, especially for the American “ur-purpose” of maximizing profit. Language reflects society so I suppose that quest for speed is inevitable; but more than ever we need young people who will stubbornly go the other way, slow things down, insist on going down that alley the rest of us are too much in a hurry to explore, and be able to summon up all the treasures of the English language to look at every side of a thing, the way the drinking vessel in a Japanese tea ceremony is slowly rotated so that all the many tiny imperfections and swirls in the glaze can be properly registered in the mind.

  9. Steve Gordy

    Perhaps I should start using Twitter with my students. That might eliminate some of the mystified looks I get when discussing Hellenistic culture or politics in the age of Teddy Roosevelt.

  10. Scout

    Oh My Gosh, I love that piece. My students all suffer from vagueness, but they have a better excuse than popular culture trends – they all have language disorders or delays, and plus they are 3 and 4.

  11. Scout

    “The spoken language has pretty much gone the way of the buggy whip. It just isn’t needed much anymore. And when it is used by the Gen Y folks it is positively incoherent.”

    I think that’s a bit too strong. Spoken language is not going away. It’s way too hardwired into us. The Gen Y speech is just a dialect – most likely not near so incoherent to it’s speakers (like with any dialect.)

    Email, the internet, texting, and tweeting have made things interesting by introducing written dialects. People still need to be able to change register, and write appropriately for the context, just like they change how they talk for the formality of the situation.

  12. Norm Ivey

    Interesting that you chose this topic today. We had a conversation during lunch at the Teachers’ Table about a similar issue. We were bemoaning the fact that students communicate (such as it is) by pointing at a computer screen, holding a pencil in the air, or handing us a slip of paper with the word bathroom or batrom written on it.

    We also discussed what each of us was doing to address the problem. I refuse to assist a student who tells me that The thingy isn’t working or When I click the thing, this thing pops up. Another teacher refuses to answer questions unless they are phrased in something close to Standard American English. A third expects students to ask questions in a recognizable question format. (I can get some water is not a question.) We all ask for answers to be written using complete sentences. (When my students ask if they must write in complete sentences, I torment them by questioning them about why they would write incomplete sentences. It’s the kind of thing we teachers do to entertain ourselves.)

    Back when I taught Language Arts, I maintained a list of Taboo words that students were forbidden to use in their writing (no beginning a narrative with Once I was…), and I assigned a grade based on their use of clear oral language in daily communications.

    We all agreed that the greatest transgression we have seen recently is the use of text talk in formal writing circumstances and the accompanying but that’s the way I write it defense.

    Language–spoken and written–is fluid and it’s going to change whether I like it or not, but some of the changes seem to be the result of lazy minds, and that troubles me.

  13. Joanne

    Sigh. Don’t get an English teacher started on this topic.

    I submit part of the problem is that students feel they don’t have to “know” anything now. Google is there for the taking.

    I’m done. It’s too late to channel regret.

  14. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    I used to be ever so very precise and quick with my speech–finding exactly the correct word with lightning speed, and I have the verbal scores to prove it. In the last ten years or so, since I turned 40 –oh correction–since I reached the age of forty years, I find words quite a bit harder to put my tongue on. I now resort to more “thingy” words, just to move the conversation along. It frustrates me to no end when people (men, particularly my husband) refuse to provide any context on their own–I may be gesturing, for example, and if you aren’t looking at me, you may miss out. [sigh]


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