In Praise of Nuance

December 28, 2014

Are you one of those people who finds it impossible to look up a single word in the dictionary? I am. For me, opening a dictionary is a shiny-pebble adventure in which my eyes constantly race ahead of my lumbering brain—“Ooh, look at this one! Oh, and this!”—and it is the rare occasion that I don’t have to squint mentally to recall the word I was originally searching for. Though the impulse is sometimes aggravating, typically because I don’t have time just to sit and read the dictionary, there is still something wonderful in aimlessly splashing about in a sea of words.

Now let’s take a moment to consider how adorably quaint the preceding paragraph must appear to perhaps the majority of readers who are, after all, reading an online blog. “A dictionary. Really?” Yes, I’m describing the physical act of pulling a book from a shelf, using the helpful thumb tabs to orient myself somewhat close to my objective—the better to limit that inevitable distraction—and then using a finger to navigate through the inviting sea to the intended destination. “Oh, great,” I can hear some of you thinking, “you’re going to be one of those.”

No, I promise I am not here to rail against technology or bemoan the loss of whichever things it’s normal these days to bemoan the loss of. (Perhaps the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, which I’ve done twice now. Or using sentence fragments, also twice.) For example, I am without question a lover of physical books, reading for me having a tactile dimension that adds to the joy of the experience, but I applaud the advent of the tablet. Anything that encourages people to read more is aces in my estimation, and let’s face it, how else can you really read while brushing your teeth or drying your hair?

Okay, so if I’m not railing or bemoaning, what am I doing? I am praising. I am praising nuance, the subtle shades of meaning, hint, implication, freight, and history that words carry, that make them unique and therefore necessary, that allow each one the opportunity at a given time and place to be exactly the right word. I am not suggesting that there is something nefarious going on just now that is draining nuance out of language; complaints of that sort have been around since folks were working in cuneiform. Instead, I’m suggesting that it is worth the effort, that there is reward to both the writer and the reader, for the writer to know what she means to say, and to find just the right way to say it so that the reader knows exactly what she means, too.

I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s wonderfully useful and thought-provoking book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. (And now you’re laughing doubly hard at the concept of my reading a style guide, as though the dictionary were not bad enough.) Pinker doesn’t have much use for the pinched and brittle self-appointed guardians of the language who approach the world with a red pen and a humorless inflexibility toward applying rules, many of which he shows to be misguided, contradictory, and typically not absolute. He shows rather than insists to his readers why one approach communicates better than another in a given context, based on how both our brains and English syntax work. I appreciate his measured, fact-based but still humorous approach to a subject too often addressed in overheated, bug-eyed invective about how wrong everyone else is.

I understand that impulse, of course; people who love language have trouble not getting their collective backs up at what seems like willful ignorance or just plain laziness in its general handling. My personal hot button is usage. Much as I love dictionaries, it’s worth remembering that dictionaries offer common usage, not necessarily proper usage. Word meanings are crowd-sourced, and the crowd isn’t necessarily all that concerned about what might seem too-nice distinctions among different words—that is, in the nuance. This is hardly a modern phenomenon: open the Oxford English Dictionary to any given word with a long history and you can trace the evolution of its meaning. Hence, common usage becomes accepted usage, which eventually becomes proper usage. The only difference these days is that the interconnected crowd works faster now and meanings can shift more quickly.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find that Steven Pinker is fine with the use of anxious to mean eager, one example he uses in his discussion of word usage that people should stop fretting over. For me, it’s impossible to separate anxious from its obvious root in anxiety, which has little to do with eagerness. So while I understand that the use of one for the other is common, I’m pretty certain the careful reader feels how the substitution changes the tone and sense of a scene, and the careful writer makes a specific choice based on the tone and sense he means to convey. That’s the nuance I come to praise. And I know Pinker gets it, too. I’m right there with him when he says, “Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.” Amen, brother.

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Filed under: On Writing
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