The Essence of Words

I have seen great artists who use very few colors and yet produce wonderful artwork and I’ve also seen some artists who use every hue and shade possible to create a vivid and colourful image.

Well this got me thinking. You can observe one set of language experts who always insist on using “simple” language for communicating with other people assuming the audience is not aware of technical jargon. And the other set of experts believe that if you dumb-down your content it loses its essence.

Wikipedia defines a word as:

a word is the smallest element that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content.

Well then, what’s the purpose of long words when you have short, simple equivalents? I always had this question, and I think Gary Provost explained it really well:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony.

I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.” [1]

I have observed a general trend among many people where they simply “memorize” word lists from random sites and/or a dictionary and often use these words in actual conversations. This is quite common for those who are preparing for GRE/language examinations. If you think simply using flowery language will make you appear smarter, think again. It wont. It would be like owning a Ferrari without knowing how to drive it.

I believe that no two words are really alike even though they may have similar dictionary meanings and the way any word is perceived varies from individual to individual. On a meta-level, this would mean that everyone interprets everything differently.

Something that looks clever to you might be boring to others, and something very important to you might be meaningless to distant readers. And this is a challenge for the authors to ensure that the readers can “see” their “paintings” exactly the way they had “painted”.



[1] Gary Provost, quoted in Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools

What would you choose?

I’m extremely delighted as I write this post on my blog, which turned five recently. Although I had decided to write as many blog posts per month as humanly possible, my routine didn’t permit me to do so.

The reason I’m writing today is because I came across a very interesting video from Micheal Sandel:

If you had to choose between (1) killing one person to save the lives of five others and (2) doing nothing even though you knew that five people would die right before your eyes if you did nothing—what would you do?

What would you choose in such a scenario?

According to the principle of utility, we should always do whatever will produce the greatest amount of happiness and whatever is necessary to prevent the greatest amount of unhappiness. But is that right? Should you always try to maximize happiness? Should you always do whatever is necessary to minimize unhappiness?

You can save five people’s lives by switching to a side-track and killing one innocent worker. I repeat, one innocent worker. Is the value of his life less than the combined value of the five people? Aren’t we going off-track just to kill him (remember he is not on our planned track-route) even if it means we’re doing it to save “five” people. Is it right to just kill five people when we could save all five of them by switching to a side-track?

Somebody once said “democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on dinner”. The minority require protections just as much as the majority, which is why nations require a constitution limiting the power of the majority and of the state.

Qualitative descriptions to identify the “value” of something is completely subjective and often ambiguous. On the other hand, what’s in a “number”?

Aren’t numbers misleading? How can we quantify the “value” of something? If you go by the utilitarianism theory for the above example, you’d be saving five lives at the cost of one. That might be socially acceptable but is it morally the right thing to do? That’s for you to decide! That’s the beauty of philosophy where merely changing the perspective leads to a totally different mindset for making decisions.

So at the end of the day it’s all about choices. You are here because of the choices you made in the past. Each choice that we make, whether it is big or small, shapes and determines our entire journey of life.