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Monday, October 24, 2011

Styling Culture (15)—Exaggerated and Inadvertently Pointed Language

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Styling Culture." 
[a] Caricature RF
In the next few weeks I will be posting the text for a "volume" that I have been distributing for the last fifteen years. Back in 1997, I handed out a two-page set of instructions that I called "Rob's Style Sheet." I quickly learned that it could be a useful teaching tool, allowing me to describe the practicalities and esoterica surrounding grammar and style in the higher education classroom (and beyond). It also became apparent that it could be a useful tool for writing comments on student papers. Instead of trying to explain in the margins of a paper that s/he was using "number" in problematic ways (we'll get to that), I could write "#19," and have her know exactly what I mean. The most impressive students learned the material very well, and some of them have already gone on to be successful writers—in and beyond academia and the corporate world.

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.

15. Exaggerated and Inadvertently Pointed Language
Many student papers are filled with exaggerated claims that, while colorful, significantly detract from the argument and weaken the paper. Such language often has an effect that is quite the opposite of what the writer intended. I have read millions of papers that are otherwise fantastic, except for the huge problem that they literally make me tear my hair out. Please say what you mean clearly, and refrain from needless exaggeration in your writing.

Phrase                  Comment

a. millions              If you mean “a large number” or something similar, say it.
b. countless           Make sure that whatever you mention is really “beyond counting.” Then don’t use it anyway.
c. literally               Mean it. Do not write “…he literally talked his head off” when surely you mean “figuratively.” 
d. huge/massive    These words do not convey importance. “Hugely significant” is a massively weak phrase.
e. incredibly           Do not use this word as an intensifier. Do you mean “not credible?” or “beyond credibility?” 
f.  fantastic             If you mean “imbued with fantasy; not real,” go for it. If you mean “great,” find another word.
g. amazing             Know what you mean to say if you use this word .
h. drastically          Mean it, or use another word. 
i. phenomenal        If you haven’t read Husserl or Merleau-Ponty, rethink your use of this word. 
j. awesome            Look it up. It is a word of Biblical proportion; most academic subjects are not. 
k. awfully               Think of inspiring awe. It is awfully rare. 
l. extreme              This is not a useful intensifier. Heaven does not have an “extreme amount” of angels 
                              (although there may be many dancing on the head of any given pin).

Please be careful about your word choice in another respect. Certain words can have a far more pointed meaning than you intend. I often see examples of the following.

Phrase                  Comment
m. littered              Does not mean “has,” “contains,” or “is filled (with).”  Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene 
                              is not “littered” with Biblical references.”
n. infested             Does not mean “contains.”  Unless you are engaged in diatribe, you probably should not 
                              write, “Early Chinese society was infested with Daoists.”
o. alienated           Does not mean “different.” Anthropology is not (for the most part) alienated from sociology, 
                              but it is different from it. Write “different.”

 ***  ***
[b] Literally welcoming RF
As bad usage goes, I have a soft spot for many items on this list. They almost never irritate me the way that "messy" and "lazy" words and phrases do. Don't get me wrong—they have to change, and they remain markers of poor writing. The reason they don't irritate me quite as much as other mistakes is that they at least show a bit of enthusiasm on the part of the writer. A bored writer could use all sorts of dull words, but someone writing phenomenal at least has my attention. I smile...and then cross it out, noting that it would be worth checking Item 15 in my style guide.

I also have a little bit of a soft spot for the sound bites manufactured by our current vice-president. Joe Biden adores the word literally. He says it often. In almost every case, he means "figuratively." The word, however, has such a nice, emphatic quality that it is hard to resist for any of us. It is a kind of verbal underlining that can be added to almost any sentence to give it that je ne sais quoi that creates just the right dash of excitement.

And then, literally thousands of years ago, it became dull. Cliché.

It's over, people. There is no originality left in our tired list of exaggerations. Phenomenal? Please. Awfully? Grandma gets to use it in speech. You don't. Countless? Even if true, it is beyond dull. Find another word. Amazing? If it really is, you would think of a better word and not waste a vibrant tale on something this mundane. I could literally give you massive numbers of examples of fantastic words that would drastically change your writing in hugely significant ways. Just think about it, and decide for yourself if your writing needs to be tired and leaky.

***  ***
[c] Pointed RF
I have spent most of this post discussing exaggerated language and, indeed, that alone was the section header on my style sheet for many years. A while back, though, I began to notice an occasional gem of misstatement on papers. Then there were more. And more. In time, I felt compelled to add my little item on "inadvertently pointed language." I am not sure whether these phrases were always in papers or not. 

Perhaps I just failed to notice them, because I can't think of a good reason why they would suddenly appear, as though driven by a newly vociferous and somewhat angry generation of student writers. Suffice it to say that they are memorable and often inadvertently funny. The problem is the lack of what in academic jargon we call "intentionality." If you mean to poke fun at certain customs or institutions, you might well want to throw in a word such as "infested" or "littered." You would very likely be engaged in a very different kind of writing from an academic paper or essay, though. Diatribe has its place, but I hope that we can keep it out of most of our academic writing. And if you mean "lots" you probably don't want to write "littered with."
***  ***
Finally, lets just conclude with a story about awe, the root of an awful lot of exaggerated writing. I heard this on NPR several decades ago (before 1985), so I have no ready reference for it. It was a story about George Stevens and the blockbuster film The Greatest Story Ever Told. And John Wayne. In any case, the person interviewed was on the Arizona desert set for the filming in 1962 and 1963. He remembered distinctly John Wayne as a Roman centurion. Wayne did not have a particularly difficult assignment. His line was:
Truly this man was the son of God.
[d] Awfully versatile RF
Apparently Stevens was not very happy with the drawling delivery (imagine John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and you'll have it) in the first take. "Truuuly this man..."

"Cut, cut," he yelled.

He pulled John Wayne aside and said, "John, John...This is one of the most significant lines in the greatest story in our history; could you try it again and this time show some awe?"

"Sure," replied Wayne.

"Take two," shouted Stevens.

Awwwwww, truly this man was the son of god.

That's my (remembered) story. Just remind yourself as you write that precise language is always better than cliché, and exaggeration almost never leads a reader to believe your claims. It is awfully difficult to get this right
, but develop an ear for it...and practice.

So...and Such...

We will have so much fun and such a good time tomorrow, THAT you won't even realize that you are reading about grammar.

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