The Importance of the Right Words

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

On the TV game show “Jeopardy” a contestant who was a teacher was asked by the host Alex Trebeck whether there was a particular student he was especially proud of. He replied that he had many unique students. Sorry teach! Unique means “the only one”. He could have said many “outstanding ” or “remarkable” students instead. That is also why you cannot be “more unique” or “the most unique”.

On PBS during the fund-raising pledge break one host said: “KQED thanks our viewers.” That too is an offense against the English language. “Our” can only be paired with “we”. What should he have said? “KQED thanks its viewers” or “We at KQED thank our viewers.”

How about redundant expressions or the habit of using two or more words when one would suffice.We constantly hear: “I thought to myself.” Advertisers offer “free gifts”. People “gather together” for “advanced planning” or “alternate choices” People seem to like to make assurances doubly sure so they hit you with too many words These are also called pleonasms.

Many expressions have become tiresome from repetition:
“Think outside the box.” “Kick the can down the road.”
One particularly annoying phrase that our President, who is otherwise an effective speaker, uses a little too often is “Boots on the ground.” (Where else would you find boots?)

He also has the unfortunate habit of calling people “folks”.
Sometimes it is totally inappropriate. Jihadists are not “folks.” They are vicious individuals.

Why is it so important to speak correctly? Can’t people express themselves the way they would like to? Well, no. When we become sloppy in our speech we lose precision and clarity and the ability to communicate effectively. Fuzzy language is like a badly sharpened pencil or a badly cooked meal.

During World War II, Hitler’s steady advance left England standing alone and defenseless amidst relentless bombings. Churchill’s eloquence gave people support and the courage to go on. His words resonated, comforted and inspired, and people clung to them. They were what kept them going until American help came. This was a turning point in history and words made the difference.

8 comments

  1. I wasn’t born when Winston Churchill was around but when I read about him I realized he was one of the best war tacticians in his time. In his story, I learnt Americans did not want to be drawn into the war but when Churchill realized Britain was almost overtaken by Hitler’s army, He quickly ordered his troops to paint the colors of Germany on British jet fighters and proceed to bomb some parts of America to create the impression that Germany was attacking America. This angered the Americans who changed their minds and rushed to attack the Germans who were closely advancing towards Britain. Churchill’s quick thinking saved Britain because of Americans intervention. To me,if a caliber of Churchill is with us today, the current worst terrorist group ‘ISIS’ would have been wiped away from the face of the earth long time ago. May his soul continue to rest in peace because but for him, a lot of souls would have been lost if the deadly Hitler army had successfullinvaded Britain during the war.

  2. Simone, you and my husband, Jim, are in complete agreement about the importance of the use of proper language. He can go on and on about this subject! “ATM machine,” bothers him. Automated Teller Machine Machine!

  3. We all know W got into those good schools because of his connections, and I don’t for a minute believe he did any work there. Fraternities have term paper files from which I am convinced he got his. We don’t want to be dazzled by the names of the schools. “W” always had strings pulled for him. It was the same for getting into the Texas Natl Guard while his cohorts were going to Viet Nam.

  4. Have to agree. W might have skated through Yale, but he also graduated from Harvard Business School which is incredibly rigorous. I have a feeling if Bush had gone to Harvard Law he wouldn’t have shined and if Obama had gone to Harvard Biz he would have been miserable. We all have our own talents.

    Right now I am thinking what it means to be a good “wartime leader” like Winston Churchill.

  5. I didn’t know the one about pairing “we” and “our” so thanks for the learning!

    I regularly give my staff little grammar and English language lectures. We also do a lot of work on sexist language. Most males don’t consider how words can be perceived differently by men and women and have totally different contextual meanings.

  6. “W” Bush referred to the 9/11 terrorists as “folks.” I was stunned, but put it down to his poor education and general inarticulateness. Now it is disappointing to have the well educated Obama doing the same thing. I think Obama knows better, but sometimes “talks down” for fear that people will think him too high and mighty. Too bad.

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