In my iPhone, hidden among the pre-packaged, processed verbiage of my text threads and emails, probably buried somewhere beneath the emoji, I keep an arsenal of verbs I stumble upon. They’re relics of my reading, souvenirs of indulgence in fiction. They’re verbs that stump me, woo me, and intrigue me, obliging me to run my fingers along their edges, a menagerie of action words, that crucial role in sharpening my view of their stories. I tend this list for a few reasons, but mostly because I’m a writer who believes verbs, when thoughtfully wielded and precisely placed, are the most important part of a sentence.
Even by themselves, verbs communicate. If you strip down a paragraph to just its verbs, you may miss some important details, but you can still grasp at least the tone and even the movement. For example, a chronological excerpt of a few verbs from my list, all from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, still communicates: swarm, buzz, trickle, melt, thaw, spill, bow, sweet, wave, recede, crumble, hoard, mirror, prowl, brim, seep, upend, swing, slosh. In its proper context, each one of these verbs grounds us as readers and propels us deeper into the story, evoking wonder and curiosity in their sounds as much as their meanings. In his book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser notes the power of verbs to move stories forward: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.”
Without verbs and their adjacent nouns and modifiers, we miss something. Take emoji for example, the Japanese iPhone keyboard with hundreds of cartoon symbols which were designed and devised for convenience in communication. According to Spectator, emoji characters “were dreamt up in the mid-1990s by Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese tech developer, as a way of making unfashionable corporate pagers appeal to teenagers.” And fashionable they have become, perhaps even a mode of propaganda: the White House has started using them in social media campaigns for millennials, and, according to New York Magazine, “recruiters for ISIS are using emoji in their friendly sounding, ISIS-promoting tweets.”
I’m not involved in the business of propaganda, but I get it. Because sometimes, instead of perusing my verb collection for just the right word to describe my toddler’s tornadic behavior on any given afternoon, I settle for the cartoon versions (yes, both the baby and tornado emoji exist). Because, like that Japanese businessman and the White House, sometimes I don’t know what to say. But I want to connect. I want to make it easy. And most of all, I want to ensure I’m understood the first time around.
That’s what emoji are, aren’t they? Cute cartoon symbols devised to connect a message with a particular set of consumers—a means of convenience, which, if we value function over form, may not appear to be a problem on its own. Unless you’re a sentimental writer like me, hungry for cadence and vitality, but instead commonly settling for a diet of convenience and virality.
What could possibly be missing from the nearly 1,000 emoji? For the pragmatist, not much. But for English majors like me, everything. Emoji can say a lot, but are missing the little things that make English beautiful, the small, unappreciated words that direct our gaze, orient our souls, and shape our perspectives. As an article in Wired states, “all the little linking words that we take for granted but give English the power to identify, modify, and look at things far away in space and time.”
But emoji’s limitations don’t just drain the nostalgic; their excessive use will affect anyone who treasures human connection. The same Wired article (in a pro-emoji article, I should mention) acknowledges emoji’s limitations and how they affect us socially: “Digital communications have always been a little socially handicapped. Unlike the written and typed communiques that came before, digital mixes immediacy with intimacy in a way that strips nuance and drains context.”
Our long strings of emoji are missing specificity, even precision. And if speaking or writing with precision is one powerful means we have to elicit specific responses and strengthen relationships, we may be doing something wrong in choosing the thumbs up emoji instead of a genuine, affirming word. When we pick the pre-packaged version of what we intend to say, we sacrifice a valuable dimension of real connection. We converse in a way that waters down or even avoids the beauty of words. Emoji may not be the problem, but they are certainly a symptom—just one sign of a culture afflicted by convenience.
Such symptoms go way beyond how we use our iPhones—they’re all over our language and conversations. In her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, author Marilyn Chandler McEntyre likens our preparation and consumption of language to nutrition, lamenting the demise of enlivening language in favor of ease:
“Like food, language has been “industrialized.” Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed. And just as it takes a little extra effort and intention to find, buy, eat, and support the production of organic foods, it is a strenuous business to insist on usable, flexible, precise, enlivening language.
I’m a participant in the consumption of fast language. It is easy to choose comfort and convenience in a pinch, because cadent language struggles to keep up with an un-cadent life. There is little space to pause for beauty. A quick question demands a quick answer, hence the pre-packaged predictive iPhone text like “I’m on my way!” or “Can’t talk now!” It’s the difference between fast food and local, farm-to-table fare. One is lightning fast but leaves you hungry shortly after, while the other marinades and simmers a bit longer, but whose complexity of flavor both quenches hunger and dances on the palate.
Our choice of viral over vital and convenience over cadence shows we are satisfied with the approximate when abundance awaits us. But how do we build a balanced diet, especially as digital communication continues to grow? Maybe we just need to slow down. Maybe we need to adopt mindful thinking, even in the crevices of our lives to which we assign less importance.
Maybe, to learn how to pause for beauty—a discipline that will nourish us all our lives—we must start in the small places, like our phones and our text threads. And maybe, when we slow down, we will find the right words have been there all along—tucked away in our iPhones, somewhere between the thumbs up and heart eyes emoji, waiting for us to wield them.