DUNLEVY: Phrasing is increasingly important in messages


Opinion Column: Tempus Fugit

What is contained in a message?  

The question is nothing new. Academic superstar Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message” back in the 1960s was the talk of the town in academia for a long time, and it goes without saying that entire areas of study, and entire careers, are focused around specific ways of communicating ideas in certain contexts. 

What remains throughout these broad and varied foci is the importance of structuring messages, words and ideas a certain way.  

In the context of composition, be it academic, journalistic, artistic or all of the above, the specific minutiae takes on a profound importance, because there is a hint of meaning, a hint of implication to every word that serves to temper a meaning and message, and the formulation of a message is the only thing that a writer can manage to ensure an idea is transmitted as intended.

​In all contexts, the importance of specific phrasing is overt. In academic writing, the goal is to clearly communicate a specific idea as clearly and unambiguously as possible. To write objectively, even discussing a topic that most would have a very strong positive or negative emotional reaction to, is the goal. 

Terms implying a particular judgment are to be avoided, total informational neutrality is the goal. In literary contexts lush imagery is associated with and created by certain terms. 

Likewise, Ernest Hemingway would not have been himself if his writing was not unadorned and to-the-point.  This much is obvious. It is not only the meaning of the word that contributes to the development of an idea, but also an interpretation in the mind of the reader. Rather, great stock must be put into the connotations and cultural associations attached to a term, and the way these different associations bleed together. 

It is not even necessary that the goal be to communicate a specific idea very clearly. Room for interpretation is a wonderful thing, and intentionally obfuscating something is perfectly valid.

​Nonetheless, most literary works, especially conventional ones, intend to make a particular point about something or another. Beyond imagery, there is often some general point, perhaps even a moral statement, on the proper way to carry oneself in a particular situation. This is nothing new. 

Ancient Greek plays lauded emotional restraint, and most tragedies involve some lack of emotional control.  "The Canterbury Tales" poked at all sorts of foibles and facets of the English society of the times.  In more recent memory, besides works so overtly political as George Orwell’s "1984" and "Animal Farm," it would be folly to say that there is no message in even the most abstract and postmodern works.  

Recent noteworthy literature has often overtly been a statement on a certain aspect of society or politics. No artistically notable or worthwhile writing goes without communicating any judgment on any topic — the lack of a statement, in any case, should itself be taken as a statement — be it overtly political, or simply a statement on general morality.  

These statements are made through the assembly of words with individual meanings and connotations into certain ideas and implications, which are then sewed together to create one overt piece. This is why some have gone so far as to say that no translation can really capture a work. Without understanding another language as though it were one’s mother tongue, how can every nuance really be understood?  

In translating an idea, one must aim for the optimal equivalent across languages, but there exist few ideas with one-to-one equivalents. In an American society, an American way of looking at things — on the deepest cultural level — is natural. It will associate a certain idea of phrase differently in a way such that it is lucky to understand the most basic point, with all further depth stripped by translation. 

Even to think about what something might mean, and to attempt to differently interpret, is still not the same as doing so naturally, and thus the work is forever tempered by its native tongue.

​It is this fundamental nature of a message that makes journalism, as well as any other writing directed toward public masses and a wide audience difficult. Exceptions certainly exist — look to gonzo journalism, particularly Hunter Thompson as an example — but most are in agreement that journalism should seek to report on current events and politics as objectively and “truthfully” as possible.

This is a very difficult thing to do, either to divorce a certain direction and understanding from a work, or to write only in the driest, least specific terms possible. The tense political atmosphere, and growing ideological divides, mean that the dominant issues in politics become issues not of optimization within a particular parameter, but of morality itself. As an example, look at the recent debates over immigration and abortion rights.  

When every statement is a moral statement, and every moral statement is political — a fact of life in this era of tense political consciousness — every message must be carefully constructed as to ensure it communicates exactly what is intended, regardless of the context at hand.

Ash C. Dunlevy is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in plant science as well as agriculture and food systems. His column, "Tempus Fugit," runs on alternate Mondays.

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