The meaning of words is conditioned
Words are useful but also problematic. They’re things that refer to other things but they’re not the things to which they refer. They’re things in themselves. They’re also things that people made up. We’ve inherited them, so they seem as if they’ve always been there.
We accept the meaning of words through decades of conditioning, so the meaning of words can come to seem unquestionable. When you choose your words in writing, you should think carefully about the conditioned reality of your readers. Your words can have an impact on that reality and that impact can work against you just as often as it can work for you.
Grammar and semantics (or meaning) are different
Take the term ‘man up’. Technically, it’s a phrasal verb, and they’re typical of spoken English. They consist of a verb (or an action) and a preposition which modifies that action in some significant way. In this case, the verb is ‘to man’ and the preposition is ‘up’.
But the word ‘man’ is only a verb if you mean ‘to put a person in a position to do a job’, as in ‘to man the battlements’. In ‘to man up’, the word ‘man’ is a noun (or a thing) that acts like a verb. And the word ‘up’ doesn’t refer to a physical direction.
Spoken language tends to be more expressive
Mother-tongue speakers know what ‘man up’ means not from the words themselves, but from the context in which we use them, and that context is relative. These English speakers know that the word ‘man’ means to act like a man and ‘up’ means to meet the needs of the moment.
No wonder many people simply prefer to say ‘man up’. Phrasal verbs are shorter, more expressive and more meaningful. But they also contain levels of conditioned meaning that might not work in your best interests as a writer.
Expressive language can lead to misunderstanding
Many people are arguing publicly right now about gender. They don’t always agree on whether to use ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ to refer to ‘biology’. The terms ‘intersex’ and ‘transgender’ suggest that ‘sex’ refers to the body while ‘gender’ refers to the mind, but not everyone’s consistent.
So the problem lies with the assumptions that we make about the word ‘man’. What does being a man mean these days? If it means being brave, courageous or fearless, then using the phrase ‘man up’ might express your meaning accurately. But women, children, trans-, non-binary and asexual people can be brave, courageous or fearless too.
We could create a culture that supports vulnerability
The real problem might be our assumptions of what being a ‘man’ means. Assuming that you know what your readers think and feel is always risky and yet most writing courses will teach you to do exactly that: know your readers.
We live in a world where people need to be ‘vulnerable’. It means being able to reveal all of your thoughts and feelings without fearing judgement, rejection or attack. It means being able to assert your right to say what you think and feel without fear of retaliation. It means remembering your responsibility to allow others to do the same with an equal degree of safety.
Learn more about creating your reality through your choice of words
Choosing your words carefully is more than important. Your conditioning shapes your choice of words but your choice of words also conditions your reality. By choosing your words more carefully, you can start creating the type of world you want to live in.
If you want to share some words that shape your reality – for better or for worse – then leave a comment below. If you want to know more about choosing your words more carefully in writing, then sign up for Editing for Impact on Thursday 2 September. We’d love to see you there.