Unwilling to Stay Silent

Not everyone believes what many of us quite likely think about the world: What we see is what there is and that’s that. Let’s move on. We can call that the hard-bitten, common sense view of things, and that view of life is responsible in large measure for all the busyness (which is the derivation of the word business, let’s remember) that makes up and takes up our days.

Scholars who think about these things will point to the fact that it is language that makes such coordinated effort possible. With language we presume to name all the things we see and hear and sense in our experience, and with those names and nouns we can put together a civilization. Now those who do not believe that what is obvious is all there is to reality are sometimes prone also to believe that language has its limits: it’s impossible to put a word to every last particle of reality, and so language is at best a pointer to what’s really going on silently behind the scenes.

It’s a fascinating subject, in part because if the only things that are real are what we have words for, then we better be spending a lot more time improving language education. And if language can’t capture every last bit of reality, then how well we use it is even more important, for subtle truths are easily missed or misunderstood. As it happens, I managed to find myself the other day deep in a paragraph on this interesting subject and I came upon a curious sentence similar to this one: Although language can never really express all that we want to say, we shouldn’t be reticent to use it well as a way to suggest, even if we can’t clearly articulate, our deeper thoughts. The phrase reticent to use it jumped out at me, and as we’ll see, either the author slipped in using it, or was crafting his words quite astutely.

The adjective reticent means to be disinclined to speak, to be silent or reserved or uncommunicative. It derives from the same Latin verb (tacēre, meaning to be silent) that gives us the adjectives tacit (unspoken) and taciturn (not wishing to speak). Traditional usage manuals will regularly caution writers not to confuse reticent with reluctant; the adjective reluctant means being unwilling to do something, and although being quiet can be one way to express one’s reluctance, silence and unwillingness do not always go together. It is just because there is a distinction to be made here that the language lookouts sound the alarm when reticent poses as reluctant.

But did the author slip in writing we shouldn’t be reticent to use it instead of we shouldn’t be reluctant to use it, or was he demonstrating a particular artfulness in his own use of language? The sentence begins with a concession, an admission of the fact that language can’t express everything; but still the author doesn’t believe that we shouldn’t try to use language well, for after all, he believes, there’s often much more than words can say and we can at least use language to hint at that much more. In other words, we shouldn’t stay silent (reticent) in using language well, because we won’t then have a chance even to allude to or hint at or intimate the realities that stand behind our words. Perhaps he’s saying that it’s not so much a question of being reluctant as it is of staying silent, and to miss that point in an attempt to indict him on a misdemeanor charge of grammatical solecism is to miss a lot.

Still, I’m for indicting, because I had to change his wording (from reticent to use to reticent in using) to propose a defense for his use of that adjective. But it is true that the ideas of staying silent and being reluctant blend into each other here, which is exactly why we should be so careful in our revision work. If the world and our experiences in it are so grand as to be ultimately outside the boundaries of language, then that’s all the more reason to preserve the distinctions that words and grammar make, for if we can in the end only point to the deeper things, we should be sure we’re pointing ourselves and others in the right direction.


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