Literature

A little diatribe on usage

As a writer, an editor, and a teacher of writing, words are my business. I know words like a hunter knows the woods and like a farmer knows the soil. I’ve made my living knowing how to use words and making sure that other people use them well. I spend my days explaining why certain writers’ use of words are considered “great” and attempting to help young people use words effectively to communicate the extent of their learning (in creative works, in papers and on tests). Most of my day, every day, is occupied with these tasks.

Though, even as a student of the game, I’m not perfect. I have to reference style manuals and dictionaries, and I also make mistakes. I haven’t memorized every grammar rule— nor do I follow every grammar rule! (Heck, I’m from the Deep South! I drop an ain’t or a fixin’ to at least once in most conversations.) But I work harder than most people at choosing my words, both in speaking and writing. There’s an often-repeated quote from the German writer Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for the average person.”

As a person who pays attention to such things, I say that, despite the best efforts of editors and teachers, some things that people say and write commonly are barbaric and devoid of consideration.  Some of these instances of bad usage are intentional attempts to appear intelligent. Others are driven by blindly repeating what they hear everyone else say. However forgivable since their days aren’t spent as mine are, I still have to shake my head. Language does evolve, after all, and a lot of common usage derived from ordinary people’s errors and bad habits.

So, here are few of my personal favorites:

All of my students know this word as my prime pet peeve: interesting. Realistically, the word interesting means almost nothing. In day-to-day use, to call something interesting is usually a polite way of saying, “I don’t really care, but I’m going to act like I do.” Conversationally, the word implies, “What you just said didn’t bore me, but the likelihood that I will act on it is virtually nil.” I press my students about its lack of meaning for one main reason; I don’t ever want to see the sentence, “This book was very interesting,” in a paper. In an academic paper, that “breezy” style – as Strunk & White’s Elements of Style calls it – leads to turning in a thousand words of babbling fluff that shows no reading comprehension and no critical thought . . . When I read that kind of style, I want to give the student only this one comment in return: I found your paper very interesting. No numerical grade, no letter grade, just that.

Next, the most commonly misused word in American English may be ironic. Anyone who has watched the 1990s Gen-X comedy Reality Bites hopefully learned from that movie that irony is when the literal and figurative meanings are opposite. Irony is not when a weird twist of fate causes an unforeseen, serendipitous outcome. If a guy wins the lottery and gets hit by a bus on the way to claim his winnings, that isn’t ironic. That just sucks for him. Nearly every example in Alanis Morissette’s song isn’t ironic at all: not rain on your wedding day, nor meeting your dream-spouse and finding he or she is married. No, irony is when the words are misleading and result in a different conclusion than what the reader or listener expects.

Third, the word awesome means to inspire awe, and awe is that speechless jaw-dropped-open feeling that something incredibly overwhelming just went down. But not anymore. Now, awesome just means good. Sometimes, when little boys come off the peewee football field on a Saturday morning, an array of parents are there patting the pint-sized players on their sweaty little heads and saying, “You played awesome.” No they didn’t, I usually think, they played well— if they won. By contrast, when Chris Davis, Jr. ran back Alabama’s missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown, which gave Auburn a victory over the #1 team in the nation— that was awesome! Picasso’s Guernica is awesome. The landscape in the Napa Valley of California is awesome. But dropping the word awesome as simple, everyday compliment . . . No.

Fourth, when I read sentences like “Everyone on earth knows that the sky is blue,” I cringe. I want to ask, Does everyone on the sea know it, too? And what about the folks in the sky, on airplanes— are they aware of this? When we write a phrase like “everyone on earth” we actually mean “everyone on Earth,” as in the planet. That word spelled with a lowercase “e” means dirt, and the same word with a capital “E” means the planet where we reside. So “everyone on Earth” is what people mean to write.

Of course, that isn’t all but I’ll stop there. You probably get the point. Think about what you say and write before you say it. If you do that, you will train yourself to avoid nonsense words like interesting and common mistakes like irony and earth.

Realistically, because we are trying to use words to communicate, any usage that stands in the way of communicating should be re-thought. Don’t try to sound smart; just be clear instead. Using phrases like “due to the fact that” makes people sound like they’re trying too hard to sound smart; just use “because.” No one likes to read a legal contract or listen to a pretentious person spout a string of fifty-cent words. If you’re trying to communicate, and the words you choose are impediments to effectively communicating, then choose different words!

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