Today, the New York Times economic columnist, Paul Krugman, summarized exactly why language is so important, in his column, But, And, Why. (You may need a subscription to see that NYT article, but check it out just in case.) Krugman talks about why he writes informally at times, even though some of his readers think he should be much more formal.
Right away, I thought of my dislike of specialized jargon that makes its subject completely obscure to anyone who hasn’t been initiated into the high priesthood of that subject. And I saw that Krugman was thinking of a similar idea, even if he’s not talking about jargon directly. Remarking about economics, his subject matter, he says:
the inherent stuffiness of the subject demands, almost as compensation, as conversational a tone as I can manage.
Krugman recognizes that sometimes you just have to keep something conversational, so people can understand it, rather than being all formal and proper. This is why, despite the grammar police who write to chide him for beginning some sentences with “And” or “But,” he keeps doing it. Yes, proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation are very important. In fact, they usually make communication clearer rather than more obscure.
But sometimes they do get in the way, as does the jargon used in a specialized discipline like economics. Or marketing. Or astrophysics. Whether we are writing or speaking, it’s up to us to know our audience. Remember that we’re supposedly trying to tell them something. But if we get so caught up in hearing ourselves use the Big, Special Words that belong to our specialty, the only people we’re talking to are ourselves.
That’s not just insulting to our supposed audience. It’s awfully smug, self-centered, and arrogant of ourselves. So we must pay attention to our audience, and talk to them and not just to ourselves.