I wasn’t going to write an essay today, but I accidentally read some confusing directions a few minutes ago and I couldn’t stop myself.
I was installing some solar outdoor light fixtures. I opened the box, looked at them and decided I didn’t need to read the manual. If I had stuck with that idea, you wouldn’t be reading this right now, wondering why I’m wasting your time.
Yes, this one is about language, and I’ll apologize to most of you before I get started. I’ll bet my good friend Kasey enjoys it. But if you hate writing and thinking about language, just skip this one and come back next week when I write something well-received.
I installed the lights and they worked just fine. As I cleaned up the empty boxes and tools, I noticed a small slip of paper, about five by seven inches. I decided I ought to read it before throwing it away. At the top were the words “Instruction Manual.” It couldn’t have been over fifty words in total. There wasn’t anything on the back. I think it took a lot of nerve to call itself a manual, but I’m straying from the subject again.
The very first sentence of this alleged manual read (And I’m quoting here)
“1. Initiation: This solar powered stair Light, in a modern technology,
needs no mains power lead required.”
Yes, I figured out what it meant after staring at it, but I shouldn’t have to translate things that are written in my own language. And yes, I figured it was written in a rice paddy on the other side of the world. I would have let all of that go, crumpled the alleged manual and tossed it into the trash, if I hadn’t made my next mistake: I kept reading.
Barely three lines under that train wreck of a sentence, were the following words:
c: We do not take responsibility if this instruction
manual is not followed correctly…”
If you distill this all down, the so-called instruction manual is offering incomprehensible instructions and refusing to take responsibility if you don’t comprehend them.
And that was the straw that broke this camel’s back.
I admit it. I’m a language nerd. I love our language in spite of its inconsistencies and odd behavior. I’m betting that’s why I’m a writer. When I read Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in which he says “there’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being…” or Abraham Lincoln, hoping we will be “touched…by the better angels of our nature,” I have to stop and admit that those ideas cannot possibly have been expressed better. I have to acknowledge that I’m reading some of the very best things ever written. And I almost always have to wish I had written them.
But there are rules about writing. If you fully understand the rules, you can love them and break them at the same time. I love to break the rules. (“Shocker!” says absolutely nobody who knows me.) But I promise you that when I break one, I know what I just broke.
I don’t write for you. I’m always happy when you enjoy it, but I write because I’m compelled to do it. And that is why an incomprehensible alleged instruction manual resulted in this outburst.
One of the reasons I continue to write this column is that it allows me to break the rules of writing. If I can throw a bunch of broken rules out there and the message arrives, healthy and understood, I am fulfilled. If you enjoy it, that’s icing on my cake. If you don’t enjoy it, I had my cake and ate it, too.
E.B. White wrote in The Elements Of Style that to write well, we must have the proper mind-set. He said we must write to please ourselves, and that we should aim for “one moment of felicity.” Felicity means intense happiness. I think Mr. White would be pleased with me, though perhaps not intensely happy. But by the time you read what I’ve written, I’ve had my moment of felicity. Thanks for putting up with me.