Where Would We Be Without Words?

We create with words. Even non-writers create worlds, meanings, stories with their spoken words. When we are not speaking or writing our own words, we are steeped in the words of others — books, songs, movies, telelvision, overheard conversations. Words — and the stories/anecdotes we create with those words — are what makes us different from other creatures here on Earth.

today's wordsNot only do we create with words, we also create the words themselves. Language is evolving every bit as much as if it were a living creature, becoming more diverse, more specialized, more colorful, more adaptable.

Despite what it might seem, this isn’t going to be a laudatory post about the wonder of words. I’ve written that here: Giving Thanks for Words. Instead, I want to explore the possibility that words are creating us as much as we are creating them — for better or for worse.

I think in words — in fact, using words helped me get through my terrible grief after the death of my life mate/soul mate. By putting my feelings into words, I could make sense of what I felt, and because of it, I connected with others who felt the same way. That seems to be the main purpose of language and words — connecting with others. A means of survival. By being able to express ourselves in words, from not having to rely on grunts and gestures, we’ve built a human world that spreads across the entire planet.

Which came first, the potential for world building or the potential for word building? Did the capability for language evolve at the same time as language itself? In other words, did language create us as we were creating it? I don’t suppose it matters. Today, right now, we have both the capability and the language, and we use them copiously.

But here’s what I’ve been wondering. Is language a tool of human evolution, or is it a tool of devolution? Are words a way of dumbing us down while smartening us up? Words seem to keep us focused on the humanness of our world, keep us connected to each other both when we are together and when we are far apart. But are those very words keeping us from a greater connection? Some people believe Earth is a living, breathing creature. Some people think solar systems and galaxies are also alive. Some even believe the universe — all that exists, ever existed, will ever exist — is a living, sentient being. If this is true, are words filling our heads and airways with so much noise that we can no longer feel the breath of Mother Earth, can no longer hear the music of the spheres?

Where would we be without words?


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

I Wish I Was, I Wish I Were

I’m implementing the edits to Grief: The Great Yearning my last couple of readers suggested, and I was doing fine until I hit this passage:

I’m trying to find comfort in knowing he is no longer suffering, and for a moment yesterday I even envied him. I wish my pain were over, too.

Both readers said “were” should be “was.” Since they are readers, not editors or grammarians, I ignored the suggestion, especially since MS Word grammar check agrees with me. Still, something niggled at me, so I spent an hour online reading various articles comparing I wish it were vs. I wish it was. And this is what I found:

http://www.grammar.net/iwishiwere says: “Was” is used in situations where the statement might once have been or could be a reality. This verb mood is called “indicative”. These subtle differences once enabled a speaker to “indicate” something without using more words to spell it out.

“If I was home, I would be sitting on the couch eating chips.” The speaker indicates with subtlety that he intends to go home, and potato chips will be involved.

“Frank’s not here yet, but if he was, that blueberry pie would be gone.” Because “was” is used, even if it read, “If Frank was here, that pie would be gone,” readers can assume that Frank will show up eventually, and the pie is in danger.

In an unknown situation, it is admissible to use “was”.

“If Betty was smart, she’d go hide that pie.” Even if there is proof that Betty is NOT smart, it is certainly more polite to indicate she might be!

“If it was Friday, I don’t blame her for taking a short lunch.” “Was” is intended to emphasize “Friday” and that it was a fact.

How fun it is that certain things can be hinted at, if the listener can catch the subtleties. Can you think of any other words or parts of speech that change only slightly but definitely alter meaning?

I thought that was the solution to my quandary, change were to was. When I wrote the sentence twenty-one months ago, I deliberately used were. I thought it impossible that the pain of those early days would ever diminish. And yet, though I still have bouts of pain at his being dead, I don’t feel the total and constant agony I felt in the beginning. So if  was connoted hope rather than futility, it would be the better choice.

Unfortunately, wishes always take “were”s. When making a statement that is not factual, the verb is in the subjunctive mood, and the subjuctive of verb “to be” is “were” in the past tense, regardless of what the subject is.

So, despite my change in attitude, the sentence needs to remain as I originally wrote it.

I’m trying to find comfort in knowing he is no longer suffering, and for a moment yesterday I even envied him. I wish my pain was over, too.

Someday, perhaps, it will be.

Perplexed by the Anything-Goes Publishing World (Part I)

In a recent discussion on Facebook, someone mentioned the case of a self-published story that was being offered for sale on Amazon. A woman posted a review, stating her opinion that the work was far from ready for publishing, and she gave the writer several examples of how to improve, but the writer took these comments as insults. What ensued was a protracted argument between the writer and the reviewer.

The Facebooker who brought this exchange to our attention asked who was right and who was wrong. I thought the reviewer brought up some excellent points, gave wonderful suggestions for redoing the story without getting disrespectful about it. (And the reviewer could have gotten nasty. The story really was atrocious.)

I can’t imagine arguing with a reviewer as the author did, though. A couple of times I have privately asked a reviewer to remove a spoiler that gave away the ending (and the reviewers graciously complied) but the writer in this case had a terribly unprofessional and arrogant attitude. She more or less said she could publish whatever she wanted, it didn’t have to be perfect, and too bad if people didn’t like it. Unfortunately, there are millions like her, which leaves me continually perplexed by the entire book business today.

The major publishers have had control of publishing standards for way too long. I certainly have no love for conglomerates or corporate thinking, so I don’t object to a lessening of their control. On the other hand, many writers now think they don’t need any standards at all. They say they can write whatever they wish, however they wish. The prevailing attitude is that as long as the writer is satisfied with the book, that’s all that matters. They don’t care if their story is derivative, if the editing is slipshod, if typos litter the pages.

Some of these writers even manage to sell a significant number of copies of their books.

Self-published writers seem to be a militant lot, demanding the same respect as authors whose books are published by a traditional or an independent press, yet self-published authors adhere to no one’s standards but their own, while a book that was accepted by and released by a publishing company has had to live up to at least the publisher’s standards. But some self-published writers do adhere to a high standard of literacy while some bestsellers released by the major publishers have an appallingly low standard of literacy.

Does any of this matter? With texting and twittering, leaving out letters of words to shorten them or using number for letters is standard. (AFAIK, u cn rd this. Me 2. LOL) Eek. Whole novels have been written in such shorthand.

Do kids today learn grammar in school? Do they need to know grammar? With spell check and grammar check on their computers, probably not. So, if books today have grammar mistakes, punctuation mistakes, typos, do most people even notice? Those of us who have spent a lifetime reading do notice, but do we count? We value language, but is language important? Language is an evolving organism, so perhaps those of us who quail at poorly written and poorly copy written books are running a race that has already been lost. A new generation grows into adulthood every year along with a new generation of electronic toys and tools and together they spawn a new generation of idioms. A new language.

I don’t know why this new anything-goes publishing world perplexes me. Most writers seem thrilled with the new order of doing book business. They don’t have to take the time to research the business, finding out which agents will accept their genre and which publishers they can submit to without an agent. They don’t have to learn how to write query letters or learn how to write a description and a hook. They don’t need to learn to deal with rejection. And especially, they don’t need to learn how to improve their work to make it as near perfect as possible. They simply decide to publish. That’s all it takes.

And most readers seem thrilled to find myriad books to download to their new ereaders.

So perhaps it’s just me who worries about a lessening of standards. Perhaps this new frontier, this stampede to publish and be damned (or not) is what everyone else wants. It’s certainly not the first time in my life the world didn’t act in accord with what I thought was the right direction for it to take, and it certainly won’t be the last.

See also: Perplexed by the Anything-Goes Publishing World (Part II)