There are many different situations in life in which the specific words we choose to use to express ourselves are vitally important. Making wishes with very sneaky genii, for example, seems to require a rather absurd amount of rhetorical precision (and, let’s face it, never works out well anyway). Telling a joke or making a clever remark that depends on a certain sort of pun only works if you get the pun right (looking at you, BIFF). Legal arguments often hang on language — consider, to use a pretty obvious recent example, King v. Burwell‘s arguments about state health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.*
Yet it seems to me that the longer I teach college students, the less sensitive they are to at least one important instance in which specific language matters quite a bit: the assignment instructions. While students often try to come over all rules-lawyer on syllabi and requirements when a grade is on the line, in my experience they are often incredibly inattentive to the actual language of given instructions for those graded assignments. Some of them seem baffled when they are held accountable for following the instructions as given, as if it could not possibly matter how a document is formatted, or how citations are included, or what topic ought to be the subject of one’s scholarly ramblings.
While it’s tempting to think of this as a matter of stupidity or willful and entitled disobedience or [insert cranky fist-shaking and whinging about Millenials and their helicopter parents here], I don’t believe that’s really what’s going on most of the time. By and large, my students are interesting, bright people who do seem to want to do well. I’m beginning to suspect that perhaps the way we read, culturally speaking, has changed the way we respond to instructions. I find that thought a little terrifying, mostly because of all of the things in life that actually require considerable sensitivity to language (medical care instructions, safety procedures, doing one’s taxes, etc.).
I suppose I should get back to grading now…
*No, I did not call it Obamacare, although that usage, too, is significant. The choice of calling the relevant legislation by the current President’s name or by the actual name of the law itself is a fine example of selecting words to communicate something quite specific.