"The Form of Sound Words"

Better speech and diction help--constructive hints and helpful cautions

By CHARLES E. WENIGER, Dean, and Professor of Speech, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

Hold fast the form of sound words." 2 Tim I :13. Paul the preacher, the mas­ter-craftsman in the use of the exact word, was giving Timothy, his "dearly beloved son," a bit of advice on an important aspect of the art of preaching. Apparently, in Paul's day, there were plenty of speakers who were using unsound words, and the apostle wanted to cau­tion the young preacher not to fall into the habit. "Hold fast," I can hear him say, "the form of healthy words." (The root meaning of the word translated sound is healthy.) "Don't get into the habit of using unhealthy, sickly, meaningless words, but be sure to choose words that are strong, vital, meaningful."

In similar vein, Counsels to Teachers advises "the workman for God": "Common, cheap ex­pressions should be replaced by sound, pure words."—Page 238. Fellow preacher, have you taken this advice ? How is your working vocab­ulary?

Man is—or should be—a thinking creature. Words are his chief means of expressing thought. "Language is the Rubicon that divides man from the beast." For a man to express him­self freely and accurately in his native tongue is perhaps the surest proof of his culture. More­over, extent and accuracy of vocabulary to­gether constitute one of the most frequent accompaniments of outstanding professional success. Long ago the Human Engineering Laboratories found that "an extensive knowl­edge of the exact meanings of English words accompanies outstanding success in this coun­try [U.S.A.] more often than any other single characteristic which . . . [they] have been able to isolate and measure."

Despite the truth of these generalizations and experimental findings, the usable vocabulary of many of us is shockingly meager. We are like the schoolboy whose vocabulary consisted of a few dozen verbs, several nouns, three or four adjectives, several interjections, and enough prepositions and conjunctions to stick the mass (or mess !) together. Disraeli, in one of his especially ironical moments, is said to have re­marked that the range of English vocabulary is decidedly limited, consisting, as far as he could observe, of four words, nice, jolly, charm­ing, and bore, with the possible addition of fond. If he were living in America today he might observe that the American vocabulary consists chiefly of nice, fine, awful, and swell, with the possible addition of yeah and O.K. Of the more than 600,000 words available in the English language, fifty little words constitute so per cent of our conversation. Seven hundred words comprise the bulk of our conversation and business letters. Only five thousand words, it is said, make up the vocabulary of the edu­cated public speaker. Too many of us English-speaking people are like rich men who suffer because, as they say, "We have never learned to spend."


Exactness Should Be Our Goal

The disease is malignant. Its symptoms are gross. Is there a remedy? Most certainly the remedy does not lie in merely adding words to our vocabulary, for their own sake. There is no virtue in "ornamenting" our diction with ob­scure, high-sounding, polysyllabic words. The bootblack who advertised, "Pedal integuments brilliantly illuminated and exquisitely deco­rated for the infinitesimally small sum of five cents" achieved nothing in clarity or precision —he was merely ridiculous. Such diction is worse than useless—it only obscures meaning. Our task is to use the right word in the right place to express the intended meaning. Exact­ness should be our goal. How can we accom­plish this task?

Our vocabularies may be said to include four classes : (I) words that are at our tongue's end —words that we really know ; (2) words that we use only when we want to put our best foot forward; (3) words that we use in writing and not in speaking; and (4) words that we recog­nize at hearing or in reading, but do not use. Our task is to raise each classification to the level above it. That is, we should be continually raising the words that we use only when we want to appear at our best, into the classifica­tion of words that come to mind instantly in the needs of everyday life. We should con­stantly endeavor to raise words that we use only in writing into the classification of words that we use when we wish to put our best foot forward. And we should be vigorous in our at­tempt to raise all the words that we recognize, but do not use, into the classification of our written vocabulary. Such a process means con­tinual enrichment of vocabulary, provided, of course, that we are constantly adding to our vocabulary of recognition.

Seven Workable Suggestions

How can this be accomplished? How can we increase our vocabularies ? Here are a few workable suggestions :

I. Take an inventory of your own vocabu­lary assets by means of one of the standard vo­cabulary tests. Any progressive English teacher in academy or high school, college or univer­sity, can recommend such a test. The results will give you a basis for building your vocabu­lary. Diagnosis is the first step in treating any disease.

II. Make lists of words that you abuse by vague or meaningless use, and explore books of synonyms for more exact means of expressing your ideas. For instance, don't always say walk, when you mean plod, trudge, stride, stalk, tramp, march, pace, toddle, waddle, shuffle, mince, stroll, meander, limp, saunter, tread, ramble, promenade, prowl, hobble, or perambu­late. Find more exact words to replace such a worn-out word as good; e.g., a good day may be enjoyable in general; or profitable, if I have business to transact; or successful, if I have a series of examinations ; or sunshiny, if I wish to go on a picnic; or snowy, if I wish to go skiing; or rainy, if my crops are drying. Books of synonyms by Roget, Fernald, Smith, Soule, et al, are available for such study. I es­pecially recommend Hartrampf's Vocabularies (Grosset and Dunlap). In my opinion a copy of Hartrampf should be on every minister's desk, and should be employed daily in sermon prep­aration and general study.

III. Make lists of trite phrases and find more exact ways of couching your ideas. Kill such threadbare expressions as are included in these sentences : "Last but not least, we have in our midst one who will favor us with a special se­lection." "A goodly number of the fair sex, seeing that the psychological moment had come, began talking along these lines." Of course, vital thinking will deliver one from the demon of triteness, for vital thinking requires vital language ; vital thinking abhors moss-covered diction. Triteness is open evidence of foggy thinking or downright mental laziness.

IV. Listen discriminatingly to the best preach­ers and public lecturers that you can find—in the pulpit, on the platform, and over the air—and record words used with special care or un­familiar significance, unknown words, challeng­ing words. Then daily study these words in a standard unabridged dictionary.

V. Read the best writers—classic and con­temporary—and, as above, note their choice of the exact word, the pungent phrase, the thought-provoking locution; and study the new words with a view to adding them to your word list.

VI. Employ a conscious system for vocabulary development. There are many available. John G. Gilmartin's Bztilding Your Vocabulary (Pren­tice-Hall), S. Stephenson Smith's How to Dou­ble Your Vocabulary (Crowell), and Edward J. Kilduff and J. Harold Janis, Vocabulary Builder Packet (Crofts) are typical and alike usable.

VII. Finally, follow such a simple habit as this : When you meet a new word worthy of acquisition, study it thoroughly in the diction­ary. Write several sentences in which it is used correctly. Speak aloud (to yourself alone) several sentences including it. Then consciously frame a sentence employing the word, and speak the sentence in a normal speaking situation, as at the table, in the office, in a sermon, to your wife, to the family circle, et cetera. Do not tell the auditor that you are practicing on him. At this stage you will probably feel something of the glow of personal contentment that is one of life's greatest satisfactions. Repeat this con­scious use of the word several times under varying circumstances, and you will probably be almost startled to discover that suddenly the new word will -rush to your need: you will find yourself, almost unconsciously, using it in the normal speaking situation.

"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver." Prov. 25:11. Are you, fel­low preacher, learning to "hold fast the form of sound words" ? May it be said of Seventh-day Adventist ministers and laymen, as of the dis­ciples at Pentecost : "From this time forth the language of the disciples was pure, simple, and accurate whether they spoke in their native tongue or in a foreign language."—ELLEN G. WHITE, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 40. (Ital­ics mine.)

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By CHARLES E. WENIGER, Dean, and Professor of Speech, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

January 1949

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