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Speech therapy

U.S. truck driver has written a guide book to help readers elevate their language skills and become more eloquent communicators

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/8/2011 (2168 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In his first speech to Parliament as prime minister, Winston Churchill could have said something like this:

"Looking forward, the outlook is for a not insignificant number of casualties, a great many initiatives to be undertaken and a great concentration of labour."

U.S. truck driver has written a guide book to help readers elevate  their language skills.

U.S. truck driver has written a guide book to help readers elevate their language skills.

But he didn't.

He said: "I have nothing to offer but blood and toil and tears and sweat."

Churchill, in the words of one of his contemporaries, "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." Like many of the great orators and writers of our time, the prime minister knew the words he used and how he used them were at least as important as the ideas he needed to get across.

In 2006, the same idea occurred to an American truck driver.

In between runs, Tom Heehler was taking night classes at Harvard, where, he says, discussions with classmates and professors woke him up to just how poorly spoken he truly was.

He had no problem producing intelligent thoughts. The problem, Heehler recalls, was how to translate his thoughts into intelligent words that reflected who he was -- someone smart enough to succeed at an Ivy League school, for starters -- and what he wanted to express.

Determined to become more articulate, he began "collecting words like butterflies."

"Whenever I would happen upon a particularly eloquent word or phrase, which you do quite often hanging out at Harvard, I would write it down and then pair that with what I would have said otherwise," the 48-year-old student, who is 72 credits away from his bachelor of arts degree, says over the phone from his Florida home.

"Rinse and repeat 5,000 times and you've got yourself a book."


Heehler is currently on hiatus from Harvard to promote The Well-Spoken Thesaurus: The Most Powerful Ways to Say Everyday Words and Phrases (Sourcebooks, $14.99).

In the book, he posits that people who write and speak using eloquent language acquire and project more power.

"As important as your words are in shaping your behaviour, they are even more important in the way they shape the behaviour of others," Heehler writes. "Your manner of speaking is, if nothing else, the central factor upon which people form assumptions about you. Whatever your ultimate goal in life, chances are good you're going to have to communicate your way to it."

He is a case in point, he says: A truck driver with no professional writing credits who convinced a publisher to pay him to write a book that presumes to suggest how others should go about writing and speaking.

"When you're well-spoken, you acquire what's called 'executive presence,' the ability to project power by virtue of your demeanour," says Heehler. "And to me, nothing is more important to your demeanour than your own words."

But mobilizing the English language, he stresses, is not about arming yourself with a bunch of $10 words or affecting an air of intellectual superiority to impress or intimidate your audience.

"If you cast yourself as the Charles Emerson Winchester the III character (from TV's M*A*S*H), you're going to expose yourself to ridicule, and rightly so. This is what I mean when I say in the book, 'to speak like an academic without sounding like one."

The book's message, he says, is that anyone can become well-spoken in a short period of time, and that eloquence is no longer a pedigree, position, who your parents are or what school you got into.

The secret to eloquence, according to the author, lies in simplicity -- the ability to use ordinary words in extraordinary ways. "From Homer to Hemingway, Lincoln, Churchill, King, Obama -- their words are why you know them," he writes in the book.

It's a simple matter of replacing common, everyday words with "eloquent alternatives" - not just synonymous words, but words that are rhetorically related in some way. More powerful words. Heehler calls them "powernyms."

Take the phrase: "It makes me want more." A conventional thesaurus might include such synonyms for the verb "makes" as "causes" or "forces" -- neither of which would improve the wording. Whereas in The Well-Spoken Thesaurus, the powernym is "leaves" -- as in "It leaves me wanting more."

In addition to hundreds of powernyms, the 391-page book also features a section called Rhetorical Form and Design, with 17 lessons highlighting specific techniques to elevate written and spoken language, many of which are employed by such linguistic alchemists as Margaret Atwood, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey and John Steinbeck.

The technique of omission, for example, turns "I never get tired of," into "I never tire of."

Heehler admits The Well-Spoken Thesaurus has been criticized as being prescriptive -- dictating how language should and shouldn't be used. But he urges readers not to judge the book by its cover (which features a sample of well-spoken alternatives under the headings "Don't say that" and "Instead Say This") and insists he's not prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach to language.

"The words and phrases I suggest as replacements are precisely that: they're suggestions. They require a measure of discretion on the part of the reader, as do the words in any thesaurus," says Heehler, who writes the blogs The Saurus Rex (Bad language and the people who traffic in it) and thewordsilearnedatharvard.blogspot.com. He also created Fluent in Four Languages, a free online course where students learn to speak French, Italian and Spanish simultaneously.

Heehler's book is pretty much the antithesis of one released by Winnipeg linguist Jila Ghomeshi earlier this year. In Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language, the University of Manitoba professor argues that judging people on their spoken and written language is a form of prejudice based on dubious claims to right and wrong.

Her goal, she writes in the book, "is to attempt to debunk the idea of a 'correct' grammar by addressing grammar fans."

Heehler, however, says it would be denying human nature to deny that grammar matters a lot when it comes to how we're perceived by others and how we perceive ourselves.

To this day, he still collects eloquent words and phrases, using flash cards to help with memorization. And, as always, he plans to use them sparingly -- and not when he's, say, on Facebook.

"We all use colloquialisms and I don't think we want to give those up," says Heehler. "I'm not suggesting that people should, when they're tweeting or interacting on social media, present themselves as if they were on Meet the Press.

"To become well-spoken, you don't need to replace every single word you use or even many of the words. You really only need to replace one or two per paragraph. The last thing you want is to over-egg the pudding."



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