Word Play

credit:  mightytyredpen.wordpress.com

credit: mightytyredpen.wordpress.com

Written communication among people has increased in recent years because of the popularity of blogging, but what about its quality?  Is the quality in decline, or is this just an effect of the internet? After all, writing no longer requires envelopes, stamps, ink, or days of transmission time. Is this a trend? So far I don’t see it – excellent writing is still published in sources like magazines (The New Yorker, Time), books and newspapers. Yet, the recently-announced decision to remove “obscure” vocabulary and essay requirements by the designers of the college SAT test could be evidence of a shift away from quality, at least in what’s known as one’s passive vocabulary, i.e., the larger one we use in reading and writing, as opposed to everyday speech.  That’s important because it’s essential to precision in communication.

The English language is marvelously flexible, being rich with synonyms, homonyms, idioms, and words that have multiple meanings depending on the context. Usage is an art, but careless usage brands its user accordingly. Dialogue would be stifled if we were priggish about it, but still, it matters. I can’t help but give more respect and attention to a writer who chooses her words carefully, even if the note is only a short one.

One form of both written and oral usage nettles me of late, and that is the common habit of qualifying adjectives that are in themselves extreme. For example, “He went a little insane.” I think of insanity as a condition, and I suppose there are gradations of it, but it seems to me that insanity is something that’s either there or it isn’t. You know, like pregnancy. You wouldn’t say, “she’s a little pregnant.” Well, maybe one might, but only to be humorous. When my 110 lb. wife got pregnant, she was so pregnant that a passing driver nearly went off the road from staring.

Before

Before

A Year Later (Only our first. The TWINS came later.)

I know this kind of thing is virtually unavoidable – I’m guilty too. I noted that one writer, whom I do respect for his thoughtful syntax, recently used the term “ . . . total absolutes . . . “, a redundancy. Can there be a partial absolute? Another example of hedging on emphasis is “That’s a bit extreme.”  Huh?  How about, “She was a little furious.”?  And speaking of extreme, the most outlandish example I can think of is, “ . . . that’s just a tad incredible.” What does that mean? The word “incredible” is becoming more and more misused itself.  It clearly derives from Latin roots meaning not believable, but because of current practice my computer dictionary now gives me a second meaning:

incredible:  informal   amazingly good or beautiful

This seems like a damaging corruption to me, but it appears unstoppable. I nominate “incredible” as America’s number one overused and mis-used word of our times.

The urge to add emphasis to one’s point is almost irresistible, but I appeal to you, dear reader, resist!  Adverbs are overrated, and chief among them is “very”. The ubiquity of computer dictionaries makes it easier than ever before to check on definitions. One blogger who used to correspond with me had the irritating habit of CAPITALIZING many of his words, as though the words alone were not adequate. It was the equivalent of shouting and in my opinion SUBTRACTED rather than added to the discourse.

I worry that I may have word-painted myself into a corner here because I know I’m faulty too.  Mea culpa. But, hey, remember, this is art, not science. What do you think?

Enhanced by Zemanta
About these ads

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Word Play

  1. PiedType says:

    You know what I think. You’re preaching to the choir. I’m sure my blood pressure shot up when I read about the SAT standards being lowered (yes, that’s exactly what they’re doing). This is the first I’d heard of that. Why don’t we just forget the testing altogether. Give everyone a diploma right now and be done with it.

    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Give everyone a diploma right now and be done with it.

      Sometimes, PT, it seems that way to me too. But then, somehow, good writing still exists and thanks to people like my professor friend Bud Morgan, people still do study the classics. What a marvelous mix it is!

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Excellent, Jim. Your title reminded me of a documentary by that name, a documentary about Will Shortz, who is the only person in the world who has a degree in enigmatology.

    And I love that “Lay down!” cartoon. I hear even NPR reporters making this irritating error. I predict that distinction will be lost on the next generation. We have already been forced to accept “very unique” and I predict it won’t be long before that will be considered acceptable usage. And it’s almost incredible — but not quite — that the word “incredible” has lost its meaning.

    I smiled at your use of “priggish” — haven’t heard that in a long time.

    My nomination (are you taking nominations?) for most overused and mis-used word is “absolutely” when yes would suffice.

    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks, Helen. Crossword artists like Shortz must delight in the ever-shifting world of word usage. Even at my elevated vintage I find the puzzles useful in trying to keep up with synonyms.

      I’m happy to receive and post “absolutely” as your nomination for most overused and mis-used word, but if we expanded the category to phrase, I think your offering of “very unique” would win easily. (I wish I’d thought of that!)

    • Jim Wheeler says:

      The Helenofmarlowe Hall Of Language Abuse

      Adverb Abuse
      very unique
      really profound (- Arne Duncan, 4/25/2005)
      a little insane
      total absolutes
      a tad incredible
      a little furious
      a bit extreme

      Word Abuse
      absolutely
      you know
      fantastic

      (To be continued, at least for a while. Nominations open to all. )

  3. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: You hit on the bane of English teachers everywhere. The damn language just keeps changing and changing, and sometimes it seems that even the dictionaries are against us. Webster’s Collegiate defines a word, then gives alternative definitions, among which more and more often are definitions or usages which were not considered acceptable in earlier editions. But all languages are in constant flux, and it is often difficult keeping up with the changes.

    And then there’s the matter of audience. My mother-in-law, overly aware of my profession, would often ask, “Bud, is it ok to say ‘ain’t?'” It would frustrate her terribly to hear me answer “Sure, Rosie, it’s ok with me. Who are you planning to say it to? To me, Sandie, or your friends, it’s fine. To your priest, not so fine, and certainly not to a prospective employer in a job interview.” The point being that in all writing, the intended audience is the arbiter of usage.

    There also is the fact that dictionaries are created by humans, and they suffer human shortcomings. The very first dictionary was compiled by Dr. Samuel Johnson (entirely from his own mind since there was no source to consult for correctness!), and among the good Doc’s entries were two of my favorites:

    Patriotism: The last refuge of a scoundrel.
    Oats: A grain eaten by horses in England and by people in Scotland.

    I remember in a Ph.D Shakespeare seminar, I used a certain word, I can’t even remember it now, in a paper. My professor challenged the word, saying it did not mean what I thought in Shakespeare’s day. I consulted the ultimate authority, the Oxford English Dictionary Based on Historical Principles and learned that my usage of the word was correct. When I presented my evidence to my prof, he said “I’ll have to have that changed.”

    By the way, I loved the photos of your beautiful Beloved. Was the one shot taken in Oahu? Bud

    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Bud, your comments, coming from a college English professor, are an insightful and appreciated complement to this post. Amusing too. Thanks. And yes, I took the second picture of my Mollie Ray in Navy quarters at Pearl Harbor in 1961. That was our first duty station after I completed submarine school. :smile:

  4. Jim in IA says:

    Absolutely TOTALLY incredible!!! :-)
    btw imho Great!

    After I retired from classroom teaching, I worked for 6 years for a company that writes some of the items used for statewide assessment for various subjects. I thought I was reasonably skilled at writing test items for my students after 38 years. Soon, I discovered that I had to learn a lot. Wordsmithing is a fine art. Choosing the right word or expression is critical to meaning. Less is often more important when the correct words are used.

    The English language is so good at morphing and evolving new words and expressions. It can be fun. But, there is something extremely powerful when a person chooses their words wisely. It can be mesmerizing.

    • Jim Wheeler says:

      But, there is something extremely powerful when a person chooses their words wisely. It can be mesmerizing.

      I agree, Jim, a good insight. As I mentioned in the post, I think care in wordsmithing (your appropriate word) commands respect. An important element in that, which I gratefully credit to Strunk and White, is making writing information-dense by eliminating unnecessary words.

  5. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: I thought I recognized the vegetation around Molly. I was stationed at Kaneohe Marine Base from 1956-58 and often was TAD’d to RBHP Primary Relay Station at Pearl, and my friend Henry Harder was stationed at Barber’s Point Naval Air Station about the same time you were there. He, his wife, Sandie and I went back two years ago for the first time. Barber’s Point no longer exists and Post-Vietnam K-Bay was totally unrecognizable. I couldn’t even find my old barracks. It brought our advanced ages home like a slap in the face. Ars longa vita brevis. Bud

  6. aFrankAngle says:

    I don’t claim to have a big vocabulary … and certain don’t write with the eloquence of George Will or some guy named Jim Wheeler. While blogs have been a place to highlight casual writing … (I thought “casual” is a fitting descriptor) … it’s also been an outlet for strong writers.

    Meanwhile, the news about the SAT’s decision confirmed what I’ve always felt … the test is a reading and comprehension test.

  7. shimoniac says:

    What we have here is a failure to communicate.
    References to old Paul Newman films aside, that is what we do have. This is a conflict between precisionist language users and the “Well, you know what I mean” crowd.
    I agree that people’s usages and misusages of the English language can be teeth-grittingly irritating, but I console myself by remembering that English is a dynamic language that has changed out of all recognition in a few hundred years; think Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If you were to try to read that in the original today, you probably wouldn’t be able to, unless you were a linguistic specialist.
    Languages like French, Spanish, and Portuguese are much less dynamic and less open, but if you can read Spanish, you can read El Cid, which is approximately contemporary to Chaucer. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, it just is.

  8. Jim Wheeler says:

    Speaking of word-smithing, my friends, I have just come upon one that is particularly confounding. I understood the term, “enjoin”, in the legal sense, but it turns out that it has an everyday meaning that is opposite. Kind of like the difference between the US and UK meanings of “to table an issue” I guess. Consider, and beware:

    enjoin |enˈjoin|
    verb [ with obj. ]
    instruct or urge (someone) to do something: [ with obj. and infinitive ] : the code enjoined members to trade fairly.
    • prescribe (an action or attitude) to be performed or adopted: the charitable deeds enjoined on him by religion.
    • (enjoin someone from) Law prohibit someone from performing (a particular action) by issuing an injunction.

    • Other examples of such puzzling words:
      sanction: 1.a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule
      2. official permission or approval for an action.
      Citation: an official honor, as a medal of honor citation, or
      a summons
      Flammable means the same as inflammable
      etc.
      Words are fun.
      .

      • Jim Wheeler says:

        Words are fun.

        Maybe “fun” is the right word, I’m not sure. “Challenging”, maybe? But sanction and citation are fine examples – thanks.

        Reading the paper this morning, I saw where yesterday’s tornado near us damaged about 100 “homes”. I never see the word “house” anymore. I think the realtor’s association has killed it and it has now gone to join forsooth, egad and anon. :smile:

  9. Jim Wheeler says:

    The Helenofmarlowe Hall Of Language Abuse

    Adverb Abuse
    rather unprecedented (heard on TV)
    pretty ubiquitous (heard on TV)
    very unique
    really profound (- Arne Duncan, 4/25/2005)
    a little insane
    total absolutes
    a tad incredible
    a little furious
    a bit extreme

    Word Abuse
    absolutely
    you know
    fantastic

    (To be continued, at least for a while. Nominations open to all. )

  10. Jim Wheeler says:

    The Helenofmarlowe Hall Of Language Abuse

    Adverb Abuse

    kind of stunning (heard on “House of Cards”)
    rather unprecedented (heard on TV)
    pretty ubiquitous (heard on TV)
    very unique
    really profound (- Arne Duncan, 4/25/2005)(really!)
    a little insane
    total absolutes
    a tad incredible
    a little furious
    a bit extreme

    Word Abuse

    incredible
    absolutely
    you know
    fantastic

    (To be continued, at least for a while. Nominations open to all. )

  11. Jim Wheeler says:

    The Helenofmarlowe Hall Of Language Abuse

    Adverb Abuse

    It was pretty horrifying (describing a hot air balloon on fire & 3 people dying)
    kind of stunning (heard on “House of Cards”)
    rather unprecedented (heard on TV)
    pretty ubiquitous (heard on TV)
    very unique
    really profound (- Arne Duncan, 4/25/2005)(really!)
    a little insane
    total absolutes
    a tad incredible
    a little furious
    a bit extreme

    Word Abuse

    look, (as, introductory to expressing a political opinion)
    incredible
    absolutely
    you know
    fantastic

    (To be continued, at least for a while. Nominations open to all. )

  12. Have to add — heard on NPR today, a firefighter talking about the drought in California: “This is very unprecedented.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s