Choose Your Words Like Your Friends (Not on Facebook)

I want to say a few words (or paragraphs) about language, linguistics, and the importance of choosing your words wisely — especially in storytelling. A special note: this article considers only the english language. There was a time in my life when I could have had a conversation with you about (and in) French or Italian but sadly those days have passed me by.

First, let’s bust a myth for fun. In 2007 Science published some pretty interesting results regarding the alleged claim that women speak, on average, 3 times as many words per day than men.(1) The surprising results of the test were that statistically the difference in spoken words per day between men and women is mathematically insignificant! So men, lest you automatically dismiss this as a post for the ladies….

Let’s say I walked out onto the street, found a stranger and asked that stranger: “do you think that the words you choose are important?” I would be willing to bet 99 out of 100 people would answer, “yes.” Probably more than 99 out of 100 people. Great, they got it right, but how often does that affect the way they speak or write. The vast majority of people take no pride or craftsmanship in the use of our language, but rather bastardized any sense of linguistic control and propriety.

Sadly, like, we all don’t really care that much… y’know, like, what stuff we say and stuff.

McCrum, Cran and MacNeil said: “The statistics of English are astonishing. Of all the world’s languages (which now number some 2,700), it is arguably the richest in vocabulary. The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words; and a further half-million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued.”(2) That is a lot of words. Words are our primary form of communication; especially in storytelling and even more important in film, where your writing is all the audience will know of you.

We live in a culture of speed and convenience. Need an answer? 2 mins on google. Need to tell your friend a hilarious story? 10 second contact search, 30 second ring, 5 minute conversation. Hungry? 5 minutes at a drive through (and it only costs $5). Sadly, there’s a catch-22; we also have trouble with articulation. How often do you say: “does that make sense?” I say it very often and a few people in my life have pointed it out. Since then I’ve noticed dozens of people who do it. We have 500,000+ words to choose from: we should rarely have to ask that question.

My cousin, being a man who enjoys tasty food (don’t we all), made quite a few trips to the refrigerator to eat as many delicious cupcakes. His son, who is 3 years old, said, “Daddy’s like a cupcake shark.” At first you laugh, “Aw, what a goofy, cute little guy.” But seriously, consider the image that statement conjures in your mind. Sharks are gluttonous creatures who ravenously consume their prey, sure, but consider that sharks often return to the same feeding/hunting grounds: like say, a kitchen. Sharks also often scoop up and swallow their prey whole.(3) Believe me, my cousin probably scooped up and swallowed each cupcake whole. My cousin’s son said 5 words and they quite aptly (and metaphorically) captured his father’s ravenous cupcake habits! He’s 3 years old.

It is the quality of our words that will separate us from the millions of other people who tell stories. Sadly, it is a (if not the) primary form of communication and we butcher it. Consider your words wisely, choose them with care, and you’ll see your storytelling come to life!

This is especially important when it comes to foul language. People use the excuse that it’s “more realistic” for such-and-such character to swear 110 times over the corse of the film. I hate to break it to you, but film is not real life, nor is it expected to be real life. No one walks into a film and says, “I would like this film to mirror real life exactly.” Sure, we don’t want to see Indiana Jones’ son swinging through the trees at the same speed as a car, that’s too far, but we certainly don’t want real life. So why is it so important to make a character swear consistently? It’s a product of lazy language. It’s easy to throw in “%#@*” to be abrasive and get peoples attention. Instead try to use language more productively.

I am not saying that swearing and foul language are wrong: in fact, I’m arguing the opposite truth. All language is, simply, a tool. That tool includes swearing, foul language, dirty jokes and even silence. My admonition is for writers and storytellers to simply use it with purpose. Don’t throw in any aspect of language without knowledge-based, purposeful consideration. Get to know your language, its eccentricities and its breadth, and use it to your advantage.

I titled this post, “Choose Your Words Like You Choose Your Friends (Not On Facebook).” My point is that we live in a world where declaring someone your “friend” is as easy as a point and a click. Consider, however, how many of your 2,345 friends on Facebook are truly worthwhile influencers in your life. Probably not 2,345 of them. Choose your words like you choose your TRUE friends — those people who mean something to you and your life. You purposefully choose to invite Jimmy and Jonny over for a Halo party. Guess what else you do? You don’t invite Tommy, because he doesn’t like Halo or Jonny. How often do you wildly invite all of your friends to an event in person. You don’t. Only on Facebook.

We have over 500,000 words to choose from: write and speak with a purpose. Don’t let lazy language dumb your stories down. Choose your words like you choose your friends: with conviction and motivation.

  2. Robert McCrum, William Cran, & Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Penguin, 1992