in which I become irrationally angry over things no one else cares about.

>> Friday, February 19, 2010

Look, I don't have time for this your/you're business people are always on about. If you have a poor grasp of basic spelling or grammar, then use an automatic checker. If you can't be bothered, then forget you. I don't have time for that. Because the same people who are so proud of themselves for knowing the difference between a possessive noun and a conjunction (woohoo! congratulations on acing the third grade!) make all sorts of other sloppy errors. I have seen the word "definitely" misspelled so often ("definately" - so ugly) that I have actually wondered if I'M the one spelling it incorrectly. Can you believe that? People make me crazy.

The mistakes that make me craziest are substitutions of homonyms (or almost-homonyms), most likely the result of hearing, rather than reading, expressions and then repeating them without thinking about their meaning. A common one is "pre-fixe" (for "prix-fixe") - I even see this printed on menus. I often hear or read people say "in one foul swoop" (it's 'fell'). Another type of mistake is using smart-sounding words that sound like they have a certain meaning but don't. An example is 'fulsome', which sounds like it means the same thing as 'full'. It doesn't. If you want to say 'full' then say that. Or say 'complete'. Why would you use a word you only half-understand? These mistakes won't necessarily make you unintelligible. But the point is that you're not thinking about what you're saying, you're just repeating a pre-fabricated thought. Maybe it's not the worst thing in the world - it's not like we live in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it is lazy. Sometimes it's both lazy and pretentious. And often it's wrong. And none of these things make anyone sound smart.

If you haven't read George Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Language, then you need to do so immediately. Here is something I did not write outlining Orwell's six rules for effective writing:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult. Phrases such as 'toe the line', 'ride roughshod over', 'stand shoulder to shoulder with', 'play into the hands of', 'an axe to grind', 'Achilles’ heel', 'swan song', and 'hotbed' come to mind quickly and feel comforting and melodic.
For this exact reason they must be avoided. Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Long words don’t make you sound intelligent unless used skillfully. In the wrong situation they’ll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious and arrogant. They’re also less likely to be understood and more awkward to read.
When Hemingway was criticized by Faulkner for his limited word choice he replied:
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree (Ezra Pound). Accordingly, any words that don’t contribute meaning to a passage dilute its power. Less is always better. Always.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
This one is frequently broken, probably because many people don’t know the difference between active and passive verbs. I didn’t myself until a few months ago. Here is an example that makes it easy to understand:
The man was bitten by the dog. (passive)
The dog bit the man. (active). 
The active is better because it’s shorter and more forceful.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This is tricky because much of the writing published on the internet is highly technical. If possible, remain accessible to the average reader. If your audience is highly specialized this is a judgment call. You don’t want to drag on with unnecessary explanation, but try to help people understand what you’re writing about. You want your ideas to spread, right?
6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
The point of communication is to clearly convey your meaning to others. But it's also important to think about and fully understand what you're saying. Repeating phrases heard elsewhere to convey a meaning that someone else created eliminates the need for you to think. Misusing those phrases just proves to others that you don't even know what you're talking about. 

I won't get into the argument that those who control language control thought (too Orwellian, and I won't really know what I'm talking about) but you can kind of see where that leads. We end up talking in buzzwords and phrases whose meanings are unclear and say very little while using a lot of words. Politicians do this deliberately. We do it by accident, or out of laziness. I think that actually makes us worse - at least politicians do it for a reason. I'm most irritated when journalists do it. Their trade is in words and they have a wider reach than most, which gives them power to influence language.


These are a few sources listing commonly-used redundancies and irritating phrases (the list of redundancies is extremely long but thorough). Some of my favourites:
  • "At this point in time"
  • "At the end of the day"
  • "Going forward" - don't even get me started.
  • "For all intents and purposes"
  • "Not so much" - this sounds so unprofessional, I have no idea how it gets past editors
  • "A perfect storm"
  • "should / shouldn't of" for "should / shouldn't have"- really???
  • "For all intensive purposes" - doubly irritating.
  • "Begging the question": I'm not sure it's worth correcting this one, as doing so makes you seem like a jerk. But here I go. This expression does NOT mean that a particular statement provokes an obvious question. To beg the question is to use faulty, circular logic in a proof. It means that someone has tried to prove a point (e.g. "God exists") by using arguments that depend on the original statement being true ("because the Bible says so, and the Bible is God's word"). It helps to think of it as being like a tautology (defining a word by using that word in the definition). Unless you're engaged in a philosophical discussion it's probably better to just avoid this phrase.
  • "Ironically": From Reality Bites - (rhetorically) "Can you define 'irony'?" "It's when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning." Simple!
      The point isn't to write perfectly or according to all the rules all the time (thank goodness, because I sure don't). It's to think about what you're saying. Simple, clear language is more powerful and flows better than fancy phrases. And, most importantly, it actually makes you sound smarter.

      2 comments:

      KT February 20, 2010 at 1:02 AM  

      i want a job where i can write blog posts during work hours :)

      b February 20, 2010 at 10:44 AM  

      I just posted it at work - I wrote it the day before! True story.

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