Language be Сomplex


We all know that writing for online should be task based. Shut up and help your audience do something: buy your shit, listen to your spiel, apply for your thingamabob, etc.

The problem is that task-based writing is all plot. Often when we get to the point, we lose the nuance. And language is suffused with nuance, so why are we wasting it?

I’m going to meander through linguistics, the Amazon and the brain – but what I’m really talking about is how we should be writing, and the real value of the words on the page.

Language up close

This involves a tiny linguistics lesson, but don’t panic.

Morphology, the study of words and word formations, is a subset of linguistics. Inflectional morphology refers to words that change without affecting their root meaning.

Let’s take for example, ‘plan’ and ‘planned.’

  • Plan is made up of one morpheme (plan)
  • and planned is made up of two morphemes (plan-ed, as Shakespeare would have said it).

They are different words but they mean the same thing (this is juxtaposed to derivational morphology where changes to a word change its meaning, like ‘develop’—eg. when the body develops . . .— and ‘development’— eg. a housing development).

Does no past tense mean no past?

Inside that little morpheme (-ed) is a big idea: time. If we look at the prevalence of the past tense in our language, we’ll see that time is a big deal in our culture. It’s the way we live our lives, it’s the way we operate and it’s the way we understand things. And this lives inside our language.

So what, you say? This isn’t particularly mind-blowing until we find a language that doesn’t reflect the same things that ours does, like a language that doesn’t have a past tense.

One of the most baffling and therefore studied languages is that of the Pirahã, a tribe of the Amazon. The Pirahã are inordinately fascinating; amongst other things, they have no words for quantification, whether that be numbers or words like ‘few’ and ‘many,’ no words for colors and no perfect tense.

Their lack of a perfect tense matches how they live, which is completely in the present. They don’t farm because that involves time that is not in the immediate, they don’t have any creation myths, they don’t have any metaphors for that matter.

They don’t have perfect tense because perfect tense doesn’t exist for them. In other words, their language indicates how they think. I won’t get into the linguistic debate of which came first, the language or the thought (I’m no linguist), but the debate does make for good reading.

What to do with linguistic insight

Our collective points of view and attitudes, otherwise known as culture, shape our language. For writers, particularly web writers, what’s even more important is how culture shapes our response to language.

In other words, if we focus only on the plot, we’re losing half the story.

But what can we do with this niche study (besides wonder)? We should apply it to the way we write – and that means we’ll be writing creatively.

Brains aren’t just for neuroscientists

Why write creatively? For a start, it’s how our brains work.

Cognitive psychologists often use an experimental technique called priming to study our brains’ processes: they compare two similar things (like syntactical structures, sounds or associated words) to see whether the relationships we create between things will either assist or impede understanding.

For example, if an experimenter shows you a word, you’ll process it more quickly or slowly depending on your association between the word and another one shown immediately before (this means you’ve been primed).

Here’s how it works:

  • You’ll process the word ‘egg’ much more quickly if you’ve seen the word ‘chicken’ before.
  • But you’ll process the word ‘ghost’ much more slowly if you’ve seen the word ‘goat’ before.

This is because our brains are associative and suggestive. And that means (sinisterly) that we can be primed to buy.

Using our powers for evil, I mean ecommerce

Writing to sell online is about more than just writing a feature list with words like ‘new!’ and ‘shiny!’. Our words will have more power if we can set a scene. A scene is full of priming opportunities.

Within that scene, we can use words that may be associated with our product, service or idea that will nudge our users on the way to understanding. Or we can use words that are generally associated with a feeling we want our users to have. “Warmth,” as a really simple example, is generally associated with “comfort.” It even sounds comfortable: the ‘th’ sound right after the ‘mmm’ sound – like plopping into a bed.

The value of language

Looking closely at our words shouldn’t bog us down. We still have objectives to meet and designs to consider. But truly understanding the power of language is the best argument for content’s true value. A change in the sound of a syllable can mean success or failure. The better we know that and can shout that from the mountaintops, the more room we’ll have to prove it true.

Our language is extremely complex; it’s meant to be a constructed entity – not a shopping list. So our web content shouldn’t be stripped so far down that it’s joyless. Succinct should not mean we don’t play.