Department of Communication

Language

Using Language Clearly

Your language should be free of any significant grammatical and semantic error.

Keep your words simple, direct, and clear.

Abraham Lincoln said, "Speak so that the most lowly can understand you, and the rest will have no difficulty."

Avoid vagueness.

  1. She is a fine speaker. (vague)
  2. To some extent, guns should be regulated. (more concrete)
  3. It depends. (depends on what?)
  4. This clearly shows . . . ("this" means what?)

Avoid clutter in your language.

  1. Uh, . . . you know . . . something like that.
  2. He was born in the year of 1831. ? He was born in 1831.
  3. We are facing a difficult crisis situation that will be troublesome to successfully resolve. We have a crisis.

Avoid cliches.

  1. She is sweet as a bee.
  2. He was fit as a fiddle.
  3. She's cool as a cucumber.

Use jargon only when you must. Whenever possible, use familiar words. When you must use a technical term, explain it in a way understandable to lay audiences.

Use language appropriate to the audience and occasion.

  1. Use gender-neutral nouns and pronouns.
    1. The dog is still man's best friend. ? The dog is still a person's best friend.
    2. Avoid using "he," "mankind," or "man" when talking about all people.
    3. Police officer instead of policeman.
  2. Avoid profanity or slang.
    1. It was hot as hell.
    2. You chicks, gals...
    3. You bastard (moron, prick, etc. etc.)!
  3. Read the special needs of the occasion.
    1. "you guys" in a commencement address?
    2. "ladies and gentlemen" in an informal party?
    3. "a humorous speaking style" in an eulogy?

Using Language Artfully

Imagery. The use of vivid language to create mental images of objects, actions, or occasions. Contrast the following two speeches to introduce a movie. The latter is more vivid than the former.

Speech 1: I read in the paper that a new movie has just come out and it's playing in the neighborhood. I heard it was good--a lot of action and all that. Wanna go?

Speech 2: Steven Seagal's new film shows him piercing the villain's lungs with a simple poke of his finger--he even reaches inside this guy's eye socket, pulls out the eyeball, and then plops it on the table. Let's go!

Simile. Explicit comparison of two unlike things (cf. metaphor).

Example: Eating junk food is like eating poison.

Metaphor. Implicit or oblique comparison of unlike things. It is often useful to use an extended metaphor throughout the speech. For example, "monetary" metaphors penetrate Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, as in the following quotes from that speech:

Rhythm. Pattern of sound in a speech by the choice and arrangement of words.

  1. Parallelism--similar arrangement of a pair or series of related words, phrases, or sentences.
    Example:" Rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, man and woman--it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself." -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  2. Repetition--reiteration of the same word or set of words at the beginning or end of successive clauses or sentences.
    Examples: "We left America safe, we left America secure, we left America free--still a beacon of hope to mankind, still a light unto the nations." --Ronald Reagan
    "We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community." --Barbara Jordan
  3. Alliteration--repetition of the initial consonants sound of close of adjoining words.
    Example: We should not demean our democracy with the politics of distraction, denial, and despair. --Al Gore
  4. Antithesis--juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, usually in parallel structure.
    Examples: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." --Neil Armstrong
    "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." --John F. Kennedy
    "Humans use symbols to imagine the possible, from potato chip to computer chip." --Craig Smith