Form, Substance, and The Irresolute Resolution

While researching for a planned parody some years ago, I came across a Harry Connick, Jr, song entitled “To Love the Language,” which ironically was a celebration of the mangled syntax of the urban dialect.  I suppose the irony might go away if you grant the premise that “You Always Hurt the One You Love”–but if this is love, it seems a tad psychopathic.

I was reminded of this recently when I came across a couple of resolutions passed by a pair of small towns in the area.  If you are familiar with the resolutions passed by political bodies, you know they tend to like the word “whereas.”  You usually have a number of clauses beginning “Whereas….” that proceed to layout the groundwork and reasoning behind the final clause, which states what the city is trying to say.  The entire resolution thus takes on the character of a very, very long sentence with a variable number of subordinate clauses (each introduced by “whereas” or some equivalent) and one independent clause (usually starting with “be it resolved…” or something like that).

What made these towns’ resolutions stick out like a trite metaphor was that the “whereas”-es just kept coming, with no actual resolution–what they had intended to resolve was stuck behind a “whereas,” with no independent clause.  The thing thus became one very, very long fragment.  It would be interesting to know whether such an irresolute resolution would stand up in court to a serious challenge.

At this point, you may well be asking:  Does it really matter?  Well…in this case, perhaps not that much.  For example, it clearly didn’t matter much to the Town Secretaries and their legal counsel.  But I find it disconcerting that the ceremonial language of civic politics is becoming obscure not only to the general public (not a wonderful development in itself) but to its supposed practitioners as well.   It’s as if we’ve given up on the idea that language is supposed to make sense–that anything we don’t understand can only be ignored or, if the situation calls for it, mimicked in the expectation that nobody else will understand it either –a sure-fire way of looking very silly to somebody.  The idea that we could (and should) exert a little effort and figure out the meaning, and that it might be worthwhile to do so (especially if you’re producing public documents), doesn’t seem to be a popular one these days.

A case in point:  the Declaration of Independence, one of our most important national documents.  I admit, the first sentence is formidable–but how many people have taken the trouble to figure out what it’s talking about?  (I dare you to try to diagram it!  It’s really not that bad once you find the subject and the verb.)

Okay, I admit some of the language is obsolete.  We don’t often use “whereas” in ordinary conversation anymore, especially for starting sentences.  Maybe we could drop “Whereas” and use “Because,” which most people would at least recognize.

On second thoughts, perhaps the problem goes deeper.  What if it’s not just a matter of grammatical snobbery?  Maybe this resolution that resolves nothing is a symptom of a dependence on style over substance–they’ve kept the traditional language, so it must be a valid resolution, even though it doesn’t really say anything.  Shakespeare’s famous quote about being full of sound and fury but signifying nothing can be applied to all sorts of things.  Just look at our national party conventions.  Everybody knows who the candidate is going to be weeks ahead of time–even this year.  But they still have to go through the motions.

Of course everybody likes a show.  On the other hand, it is nice to know that my dentist, whom I will be seeing next week, survives on the skill of his dentistry, and not on the aesthetic qualities of his waiting room.

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