|[a] Lego (logo) RF|
I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during the autumn and into the winter. As you will quickly see, it is meant to be a grammar book for the anthropologist of American English. It has its prescriptive elements, to be sure (this is all explained in the introduction to the series), but it is meant far more powerfully to be a genuinely useful guide to the culture wars surrounding grammar and usage. In particular, I have great venom for both the annoying critics who always seem to be correcting people and (this is important) for the "good guys" who tell you that it doesn't matter.
They're both wrong, and they will hurt you if you listen to them. I'm here to help you, so read on.
a. very unique Something “unique” need not be intensified.
b. done with Done. Now that my point is
c. totally This is a
d. etc. This is almost always a problem in formal prose, extended narratives,
e. try and You probably mean “try to.”
f. plan on You probably mean “plan to.”
g. versus This is not an effective comparison word (unless you are writing about a prizefight).
h. impacted Unless you are writing about soft sediments that have been hardened, let it go (please).
i. interfaced Please, just think of something else. Usage of this word is so sloppy that I can't bear it.
j. multitude There are many things, and many words with which to describe them. Multitude is overused.
l. time period It is either a time or a period. “At this point in time” is even worse.
m. ancient China Please do not write this unless you mean it. If it is not 221 BCE or earlier, don’t use it.
n. disrespect While this may be useful in conversation, it far too colloquial for careful prose (unless you
o. quote This is a verb. The noun is “quotation” unless it refers to a particular term (e.g. “price quote”).
p. though If you mean to write “although,” do so…
q. fair number of A
r. America I realize that it is common usage (even Tocqueville used it). North? South? Latin? Be
s. dilemma Know the dictionary meaning of this term (it has “horns”). It is not a synonym for “problem.”
t. prime example This is a
u. really I find this to be a
v. not overly The use of this phrase is not
w. 100% This is not a synonym for “completely.” Use it only if you are speaking of percentages.
x. therefore Overuse of this word is harmful to your argumentation.
y. starts off When your essay
z. I guarantee you Just state things confidently and leave it at that.
aa. being that Since.
bb. pretty This is not a useful modifier. It is
cc. loosing Losing (this has become an epidemic in paper writing; spell it correctly).
dd. focus in on Focus (on).
ee. plenty of Too colloquial There is
ff. seeing how
hh. around You might mean “approximately." There are
ii. interesting This is a word that should almost always be avoided (using it usually hints that it isn’t).
jj. scan Know the meaning of this word. It is not a synonym for “skim” (quite the opposite, really).
kk.100s, 1000s Hundreds, thousands. Spell ‘em out.
ll. exact same How about same?
mm. based off of This is wordy, clunky, and vague.
nn.olden days Employ more historiographical perspicacity. Grandma gets to say it; you don't.
pp. bottom line Unless you mean to use it precisely (by referring to balance sheets), find another term.
|[b] Wordee RF|
Well, in 1997 it consisted of just three items—"try and," "etc.," and "seeing how/as." The list just keeps growing, even though (I hasten to add) I don't add new items until I have seen the problem at least a half-dozen times. Is writing getting worse? You might be surprised by my answer (a cautious "no"). These are the
The list above contains a hodgepodge of items. I'll grant you that. I call 'em as I see 'em while reading thousands of pages a year of student papers. Let's return briefly to the question of whether student writing is worse than it was a generation or two earlier, though. I realize that criticizing today's students is a common rhetorical tack, and (don't get me wrong) I do see a fair amount of poor writing. I am not even trying to "go easy" on my students. I just remember the mistakes I made as a student writer, and wish that I would have had a little bit more guidance in the intricacies of writing well. I learned about that in my weekly pilgrimage through The New Yorker, as I internalized words, phrases, and whole paragraphs written by John McPhee, Ved Mehta, and Donald Barthlelme (among others). Still, my papers continued to have sloppy and derivative lines worthy only of a student who, although trying, didn't spend enough time working with prose.
|[c] Clutter RF|
Oops, but that's it.
Cluttered writing of the kind I see regularly in my day job represents a failure to harness the two things at the foundation of excellent writing—more reading and writing. The reason I eventually learned to find my way around an essay— and the reason that some of my students today are exceptional writers who would have given the best English majors in the Class of 1951 a run for their adverbs—is because I began doing piles of reading, strategic rereading, continual writing, and focused rewriting. Former students of mine remind me often of the way I shout the following lines in class...repeatedly:
It's true, although even this doesn't quite get the picture to hang perfectly on the wall. People today (not just "students") don't read enough, to be sure. It is becoming a social problem. I would argue that almost no one rereads enough, though. Only by processing large swaths of prose and poetry and then rereading—or even memorizing—some of it can we "break through," and start to see "messy terms and phrases" for what they are: not "rule-breaking," but surely poor writing.
|[d] Practice RF|
And here is where writing comes in. We the people don't write enough anymore, either. Even that doesn't reach my point precisely, though. If you don't write, you don't even have a chance of encountering your own production of
You see, (although this is where I will end today, you have not heard the last of this), we get more writing practice today than in the history of humankind. With the exception of orators, essayists, journalists, and keepers of commonplace books, everyone writes more today than all but a few people (named, for example, "Thomas Jefferson") did in the past.
E-mail; Facebook. Think about it. I often bring this up in class when considering the "messy terms and phrases" in our list. What if you started to think about e-mail messages, or Facebook posts, as opportunities to become better writers?
Listen again. Your e-mail messages could be ways to test phrases, vocabulary, and ways of telling a story, not to mention analyzing a situation. It could be practice and communication...at the same time.
The words have hardly begun to echo against the walls in the classroom before the protests begin, not to mention the guffaws of disbelief. Indignant chortles are close behind. Do I mean to kill the very spirit of the e-mail message? Am I trying to make Facebook into school? How dare I even suggest using these "real" (and enjoyable) communications to become a more effective writer?
|[e] Violin, e-mail...all practice RF|
I like school (it's my day job), but my point is quite a bit different. Who ever said that writing had to be "like school?" Isn't it a form of communication? Isn't "becoming a better writer" something like "becoming more skilled in communication?" Isn't that something useful in that vast world beyond the classroom? That's all I'm saying. The problem is that—instead of being places to develop a writing "voice" capable of communicating in rich and varied ways to different people in different situations—much of our Internet writing has become stale, forming algal pools fertilizing sloppy verbiage. To the extent that people consider, say, e-mail to be "non-writing," the situation becomes a little worse every day.
The problem is that—far from too little writing—people are doing too much writing that they regard as meaningless. Anyone who reads the list above and thinks about it is likely to agree (after quibbling with one or another item) that these phrases do not represent the height of English prose style...or even very clear usage. What a shame that we keep pushing around this kind of clutter when, by just looking at all writing of any kind as an opportunity, we have all of the practice we could ever want—all around us.
|[f] Practice makes skilled RF|