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.
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?