Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Smooth English

As an impressionable young boy, I had the good fortune to be exposed to the Schoolhouse Rock videos that were prominently featured on the ABC television network. I can remember titles like "My Hero Zero" a story about the powers of ten, "I'm Just a Bill" a civics lesson and "Interjections!". But the one video that made the greatest impression on me was Conjunction Junction, the story of conjunctions. Looking back, I'm surprised that any television network would air such high order thinking in front of kids. I mean, who needs critical thinking skills when you're trying to sell something?

What are conjunctions? They are just some of the little words between other words, phrases and clauses. As the video "Conjunction Junction" shows us, words like "but", "or", and "and" allow us to string words together to communicate a thought. As I write or speak, I look for places where they are needed to make sure that what I say is clear, so that I'm properly understood.

This article is wider in scope than just conjunctions. I think of all the 1, 2, 3 and even 4 letter words that I tend to find missing in articles I read on the internet. Words like "a", "is", "that", "was", "be", and of course, "the". Those little words are the grease in what I write and what I read.

When I write a complex sentence, I read it aloud in my head to make sure that it flows nicely, just like they taught me in school. I want you to be able to read my prose without stopping to think, "Hey! You're missing a word! Now I have to fill it in for myself!" See? The preceding quoted passage had a few more of those itty-bitty words.

As you can see, there are lots of ways to make a sentence flow better in text. But what about speech? I used to be a member of Toastmasters and there, I became acquainted with the "Ah counter". In Toastmasters, I became painfully aware of the dreaded Ahs, Ums and Hmms, in speech. Whenever I did that during a speech, I heard someone dropping a coin in a can to remind me of what I just did.

Those sounds are not words, but we use them to pause our speech and give us more time to access memory or formulate new thoughts while keeping our hands on the virtual podium before us while we talk to our friends and family. I call that behavior, "holding the floor". That one exercise in Toastmasters created discipline in my speech that has never left me since. Even in casual conversation, you won't hear me saying any of that because I want every word to count.

Just as I speak, when I write, I want every word to count, too. I want every passage to be smooth and unbroken in your mind as you read them. If you're correcting my grammar in your mind while you read my words, you won't enjoy the article quite as without correcting me. So look for those little words the next time you read or write anything, anywhere. You'll find that those little words make every passage a little easier to traverse.
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