Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earth

You were probably told Your high school English teacher probably told you to avoid using passive voice in your writing. “The satellite was hit by a meteor” isn’t quite as impactful as “a meteor hit the satellite.”

The latter is more direct — a quality you typically want in your writing.

But sometimes, we’re not writing or speaking to maximize our impact. In fact, we often want to soften our words to avoid placing blame on someone, reduce the effect of delivering bad news, or simply skirt around an issue.

Word choice matters. Consider how the following sentences all say something similar but can have very different implications depending on their context:

"I didn’t submit the grant proposal.”
“We didn’t submit the grant proposal.”
“The grant proposal did not get submitted.”

Concise communication is good communication, but sometimes, a few extra words can transform what you’re saying and inject humor to diffuse a situation.

“The rocket experienced a rapid unplanned disassembly” has a very different effect than “the rocket exploded,” even though they both say the same thing.

And in times of conflict or grief, when emotions run high, the way we assemble and deliver words can be the difference between starting the healing process or leaving an open wound.

When the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, killing all seven people on board, we turned to language, because in that moment, there was nothing else to do.

President Ronald Reagan, in his address to the nation written by Peggy Noonan, used language from the poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee Jr. to help the country process the tragedy:

We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.

In that moment, a shocked nation found space to grieve. And with those words in hand, it could begin the excruciating, gut-wrenching process of moving on.

For life is for the living, and language sustains us.


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