Chapter 16: Naming and Telling

There is nothing wrong with English. We do not live in the twilight of a dying language. To say that our English is outmoded or corrupted makes as much sense as to say that multiplication has been outmoded by Texas Instruments and corrupted because we’ve all forgotten the times table. You may say as often as you please that six times seven is forty-five, but arithmetic will not suffer. You, of course, may suffer, and, if you happen to be an aerospace engineer, lots of other people may suffer when your machinery falls into the downtown section of Detroit, but it won’t be because of the decay of arithmetic. Those thousands of dead and maimed will not be the victims of a decline in the art of mathematics but simply of ignorance and stupidity, ignorance and stupidity that might have been prevented had you learned to manipulate a system of symbols. If it seems to you that an equivalent error in the symbol system of English can’t possibly destroy Detroit, then good luck.

A symbol system that just sits there is no good at all. To learn things, to understand and to predict, we have to manipulate it. The better we manipulate it, the more hope there is for Detroit. No matter how badly we manipulate it, however, it remains what it is–a way of making knowledge and understanding. What is thought to be a decay of English in our time is, in fact, a decay in the brains of those who have not learned to manipulate English. Worms have made their homes in our brains and have eaten away the power of our speech and of our thought. Some highly specialized worms have here and there eaten away the active voice or the prepositional phrase, but the greatest worm of all, the Master Worm, is gnawing away at the Central Control Board, the mechanism that makes language something more than the sum of its parts, the mechanism that links naming and telling.

Consider again that provost who speaks of the elements of the process, and the components of the process, and the factors of the process. He is, of course, being thoughtless and lazy. He is using some more or less right-sounding words to conceal, mostly from himself, the fact that he hasn’t thought something out. He just doesn’t know exactly how to cut up that process and how its various parts are to be related to one another. He is covering the holes in his brain with little slabs of jargon. He has chosen some faddish terms to conceal his failure of thought, but for all the understanding they provide he might just as well have spoken of the segments of the process, or its units, or its compartments. Had he had more time for reflection, we can suspect that he would have spoken of its essential elements, its integral components, and its factors to be considered.

There are plenty of people, most of them in important positions, who write and think like that, covering an emptiness in the brain with jargon. How does that come to pass? The answer is portentous.

It is a special richness of English that it provides its speakers with many long lists of words that mean nearly the same thing. Consider the provost’s words: element, component, and factor. They all point to a part of something. So too do the hypothetical alternatives: segment, unit, compartment. In about two minutes, you should be able to think up eight or nine more words that mean, roughly, a part of something. But only roughly.

In slangs, there are large arrays of synonyms that do mean the same thing, because slang is exuberant and poetic. Discursive prose, unfortunately, must be usually sober and precise. Its large arrays of synonyms are designed to provide many slightly different meanings and, accordingly, finer and finer distinctions. To make finer and still finer distinctions is a proper goal of thought. It is the equivalent of making finer and still finer measurements in technology. There is an important difference, however. The fine measurements of technology refer to the world then and there, the world of physical experience; the fine distinctions of language refer to a world that is not there in the same sense, but to a world devised in the mind, a world of imaginative construction.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know exactly what the provost means by elements, components, and factors? Well, not really; he probably doesn’t have any clear idea of what he means. But suppose he did. Then he would be able to explain to us why this part of the process is best understood as component while that part must be called an element. He would make it clear that the factors of the process are subtly different from the elements and components, and we would behold in wonder an elegant and elaborate construction of the mind of man, a construction that might be useful. But that’s not going to happen. In fact, those words, as the provost uses them, are precisely analogous to the synonym lists of slang. Where slang provides a host of colorful names for private parts, the jargon of the provost provides a host of insipid names for any old parts at all. He is reciting a kind of drab doggerel when he pretends to be pursuing thought in discourse.

The business of language is twofold; it is for naming and for telling. Those things are not related to each other in exactly the same way. Telling requires naming, but naming does not require telling. Naming by itself is of little use. Remember the lion in the grass who needs no name. We can, of course, sit around and say to each other the names of nearby things, but that would be an idiotic enterprise suitable for nothing more important than passing the time on a long automobile ride. Speaking our language is not an essay in naming. Speaking our language is a matter of telling, naming things and making propositions about them, which is in effect the arranging of names in such a way as to present for the mind an order of things that is not present in the arrangement of things around us. Even words like “when” and “late” are “names” of a sort, but they name relationships and ideas that have no concrete existence in the physical world. Two things, then, are necessary for intelligent discourse: an array of names, and a conventional system for telling. The power of a language is related, therefore, to the size and subtlety of its lexicon, its bank of names, and the flexibility and accuracy of its telling system, its grammar. In these respects, English is a tremendously powerful language, and those who know it can do great things and create knowledge and understanding. The trouble with that provost and all the others we have looked at is not that they have corrupted the English language, but that in the fullest sense they don’t write the English language. Their naming is insufficient and inaccurate, and their telling is ambiguous and irregular.

In a very complicated culture like ours, there are many things that require extremely precise naming. Even in much simpler cultures there will always be some things that require the same. The Eskimos, you will recall, have names for many different kinds of snow, and the Jiukiukwe have names for stones of different shapes. Such distinctions are important parts of their technologies. It seems unlikely, however, that the Eskimos have to devise a complicated set of names for those little tunnels that serve as doorways to their igloos, and the Jiukiukwe, who have no structures at all, need no name for a doorway. Our culture is so complicated that even as simple a thing as a doorway can be an issue in an elaborate technology. That’s the reason for that grotesque definition of an exit on page 143 [Chapter 12]. The law is one of our linguistic technologies, and in this case the demands of the law are for precise, complete, and unambiguous meaning. To read such a definition, of course, is no fun, but it isn’t really meant to be read. It isn’t strictly a piece of writing at all. It isn’t “telling” either; it’s only a very fussy naming, an extended entry in some imaginable index of special names for special occasions.

Our endless need for new and precise names certainly complicates our language, but such complication doesn’t have to cause inanity however much purists may deplore it. Think of the recent adventures of a popular word, “incentive.” This word was once a neologism and probably repellent to some, but we have learned to live with it. In fact, we have come to need it, because it makes a precise distinction. To have an incentive is not only to have a reason for doing something, but more specifically to have some hope of profit or advantage from the doing. Indeed, the incentive is often the profit or advantage. “Incentive,” therefore, is not exactly interchangeable with “motive” or “inducement” or “encouragement,” for instance. So what are we to think about a congressman from Pennsylvania who claims to be proud of having invented the word “incentivize,” by which he means, of course, “to provide with an incentive”? If you think he has corrupted the English language, try to find a precise equivalent, a more traditional naming of exactly that action. To our ears, his word may be ugly, but “incentive” itself was once ugly to the English ear. If “incentivize” names an action that cannot, in fact, be otherwise named, we’ll learn to live with it.

In the next chapter of the adventures of “incentive,” we hear our Social Security Director speaking of “disincentives” to early retirement. Any right-thinking person recoils in dismay from this hideous word, but a little reflection suggests that it may not be easily replaced with something more familiar. For instance, would “discouragement” do the same job? Not quite. “Discouragement” may be what we feel when we consider how much money it will cost to retire too soon; the “disincentive” is that arrangement in the system that causes the loss of money and the concomitant discouragement.

The making of new names is an inanity only when it isn’t necessary. Here again we can see that most of us need to ape those who are higher on the scale of technology. Most of our unnecessary jargon consists of words like “interface” and “input,” precise namings at one level of technology, which seep downward into lower levels where they are neither precise nor even needed. There’s more to the process, though, than the simple mimicking of somebody else’s names; we also mimic the process by which the names come to be made in the first place. That’s how we get the inane neologisms like “orientate” and “updation.” (That may need clarification for the more sheltered reader: an “updation” is what you get when you are updated. As yet we have no word for what you get when you are dated up. Be patient.) Thus the school people have changed “competence” to “competency,” gaining thereby some small increase in self-esteem and a twenty-five percent increase in syllables, but without naming anything that wasn’t already named by “competence.”

Remember now the prayers of the grant-seekers. If you’ve forgotten them, here is a mournful reminder: “Within the general system of teaching acts are many subsets of actions and processes.” Notice how cunningly this manages to tell almost nothing while naming many things. All that it tells us is that “teaching” has parts, parts that may as well have been called components, elements, and factors. But it names a system, even a general system as though there were some means to distinguish it from a specific system; it names certain acts, here carefully but needlessly distinguished as teaching acts; it names subsets and actions and processes. It sounds impressive, but it tells nothing.

That was the passage in which we found unspecified but supposedly important “developments in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory.” It offered us also “translation, transformation, and organization of subject matter into meanings,” a resounding string of names that ought to make certain fine distinctions but don’t. In this kind of writing, which must also be called this kind of thinking, the specious elaboration of names becomes so automatic that we find even the unlikely naming of the “instruction of individuals and groups” where the single word “instruction” would have been enough.

It has often been noted that bad English, especially among educators and bureaucrats, is clogged with ponderous parades of nouns: “Government personnel applicants for illiteracy enhancement remediation programs must submit program application permission forms in accordance with bureau application procedure policies,” or something like that. Such writing is indeed clogged with nouns, but why? It’s simple. Once again, the Master Worm eats away the central switchboard that connects naming to telling. When these people go to say something, they can only babble a string of names.

Now we can understand better the plight of P, whom you will remember as the man who is going to test high school children for minimum competence (or as he would put it, competency) in literacy. He is the man who said:

Our program is designed to enhance the concept of an open-ended learning program with emphasis on a continuum of multi-ethnic, academically enriched learning using the identified intellectually gifted child as the agent or director of his own learning.

Omitting for now his specious modifiers, modifiers that make no useful distinctions, we see that a program is designed to enhance the concept of a program with emphasis on a continuum using a child as an agent or as a director. (It sounds as though those last two might be interchangeable.) This is a failure in the switchboard; telling is overwhelmed by naming. The namings, furthermore, are all abstract, pointing into an evoked world of insubstantial programs and concepts and continua. What, exactly, do we do when we enhance the concept of a program? Will emphasis on a continuum do the job? As to the specious modifiers, there too we find naming without telling in a collection of faddish words. Is an open-ended learning program a learning program that is open-ended or is it a program of open-ended learning? Does either of those things make much sense? What other intellectually gifted child than the “identified” gifted child could there possibly be to put into an open-ended learning program or even into a program of open-ended learning? How else but academically might learning be enriched?

If this were a case of telling rather than mere naming, we would have none of those questions. Nevertheless, be mindful of P’s problem. He does have to write something once in a while–it’s probably in his job description–and there obviously isn’t much to tell. He has to say something, and a bewildering exercise in naming may convince the thoughtless and indolent that something must have been told. This is not to say, however, that P is practicing to deceive. The truth is almost surely worse than that. He very probably thinks that he has told something and, accordingly, that he has thought something.

Here is a most appropriate example of naming disguised as telling. These are the unconsciously ironic words of some people who imagine that they are going to do something about the writing skills of schoolchildren:

It is necessary that schools and school districts emphasize the importance of imparting to students the skills and attitudes which are the underpinnings of a comfortable, confident, successful producer of all forms of written matter, including prose, poetry, and practical narrative and descriptive and interrogatory writing (e.g., letters, applications, requests for information, reports, etc.).

This, after many months of deliberation, was one of the most important conclusions of an advisory committee of experts on reading and writing. They have, in effect, decided that the schools should teach the students how to write. The elevator man, of course, could have told you that. If you don’t have an elevator, you could have gotten the same information from the taxi driver or the man who reads the meter. This is by no means to denigrate the achievement of the committee; what has always been perfectly obvious to all the rest of us actually is a tremendous breakthrough for educators, and they are much to be congratulated for having so largely transcended their training. However, they have still a little more transcending to do. The passage shows all of the symptoms of profound and probably irreversible brain damage. It could be taken for a miniature model of everything that is seriously wrong with the use of English in our time. Reading prose like that is like watching some game in which you can’t see the ball.

Give yourself a little test. Don’t reread the passage. It is, although it probably didn’t seem so when you read it, all one sentence. Try hard to remember the subject of the sentence. The subject of a sentence is not just a grammatical reality; it is a reality of thought. It’s what the sentence is about, or, in more appropriate terms right now, it is the “naming” at the heart of the “telling.” If you have been able to remember the subject, you should have no trouble remembering the verb, and when you do you will have recalled the very core of this sentence, the hard, inner skeleton of meaning so characteristic of sentences in English and many other languages. In this case, however, the skeleton is a little squishy: It is “It is.”

Where this writer says “It is necessary that the schools” and so forth, you or I or the elevator man would probably say: “The schools should do something.” Even so, we would only be trying to make the best of the bad mess. Is this sentence supposed to be about schools? Or is it supposed to be about writing? “It” is only the grammatical subject of the sentence; what the sentence is about is unclear. The schools and school districts, along with a whole catalogue of other things, have been submerged into a “that” clause. This is another way of evading responsibility and pointing not to what is in the mind of the writer but to what we’re supposed to understand, apparently, as a condition in the universe. The writer is putting as much distance as possible between himself and what he says. Such prose is a form of immorality, similar to the Divine Passive and the dangling modifiers of the chair of the EEOC. People who write like that are in flight from the responsibility implied by the basic structure of the English in which doers do deeds.

Prose that clouds responsibility also diminishes humanity. When Churchill said, “We shall fight on the beaches,” his grammar said for him, and to all of us who share that grammar: “I, a man, speak these words out of the thoughts of my mind, and I mean them.” Suppose that he had said instead: “It may become necessary that we fight on the beaches.” Then his grammar would have said for him and to us: “There may be in the universe some condition of which we ought to be mindful. You will understand, of course, that this is what should be said, but as to whether or not the whole thing is my idea or not is neither here nor there.” Englishmen might well have packed up by the millions and moved to Nova Scotia. The writer of our passage would probably have said: “It may become necessary that we emphasize the importance of imparting to ourselves the skills and attitudes which are the necessary underpinnings of successful engagers in all forms of combat on the beaches.” Englishmen are plucky, but not that plucky. After such words they would simply have surrendered.

Naming without telling is equally an evasion of responsibility. We can talk about components, elements, factors, sets, subsets, translations, and transformations only because we do not expect to be called to account for our words. The more of these words we use, the better we can bewilder the reader or even bamboozle him into the conviction that we must know what we are talking about, thus putting off, perhaps forever, the day of reckoning. Notice how that happens in the passage just cited. What should the schools–and the school districts–actually do? They should emphasize. That’s what it says–that’s the verb that goes with the schools and the school districts. And what should they emphasize? They should emphasize importance. Importance? What importance should they emphasize? They should emphasize the importance of imparting! Can we ask “imparting what?”? No, not yet. First we must ask “imparting to whom?” So we ask it. We are answered that they should emphasize the importance of imparting to students. Ah! All of a sudden some human beings appear. Unfortunately, however, they will turn out to be superfluous, because there just isn’t anyone around in the schools and school districts except students to whom to do that imparting whose importance is to be emphasized. So we go on. Now we can ask “imparting what?” Imparting skills and attitudes, of course. What skills and attitudes? Skills and attitudes which are underpinnings, naturally. Underpinnings of a producer. What else did you expect? What kind of a producer? A comfortable, confident, successful producer. And so on. The thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth words of this sentence are “written matter.”

Someone here has taken great pains not to say something. Even “writing” is avoided. We hear, instead, about “written matter,” which presumably includes clay tablets and the “Hot” and “Cold” labels on faucets. “Written matter” is needlessly, but meagerly, elaborated into “prose, poetry, and practical narrative and descriptive and interrogatory writing,” to say nothing of the e.g. This is one of those catalogues of names meant to convince the reader that somebody has thought all this out. Unfortunately, the silly invention of “interrogatory writing” gives the game away and reveals that these are all names, not thoughts, and that nothing is told.

When the connections between naming and telling are broken, our language becomes subhuman. The crows and the antelope exist by a system of reflexive naming, a sort of sublanguage perfectly suited to serve the needs of herds and flocks. That sublanguage, not surprisingly therefore, flourishes most where we have formed our own herds and flocks, in bureaucracies and corporate structures. Some individual human being wrote that stuff about emphasizing the importance of imparting. Lost somewhere in that producer’s underpinnings, there is a human mind with the power of rational thought. What has become of it? Where is Nigger Jim, now that we need him? He would ask: Is a bureaucrat a man? Is an educationist a man? How come he don’t speak like a man?

Chapter 17: Sentimental Education