From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Styling Culture (13)—Messy Terms and Phrases

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Styling Culture." 
[a] Lego (logo) 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.

13. Messy Terms and Phrases
Avoid the following phrases. They will lead you into a morass of fuzzy thinking and writing that will create confusion for your readers. I continue to lengthen this list every year, but these are only the most flagrant examples from a cornucopia of possibilities. 
Phrase                   Comment
a.  very unique        Something “unique” need not be intensified.
b.  done with           Done. Now that my point is done with, I hope that it is clear.
c.  totally                 This is a totally problematic word that does not effectively convey the emphasis you seek.
d.  etc.                     This is almost always a problem in formal prose, extended narratives, etc., etc.
e.  try and                You probably mean “try to.”  Try and avoid this.
f.   plan on               You probably mean “plan to.”  Plan on avoiding this.
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.

k.  besides              Besides being clunky, it is needlessly vague. Use “in addition to” or another choice.
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 
                               are quoting someone else's speech).
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 fair number of papers use such imprecise wording. Be less wordy and more precise. 
r.  America              I realize that it is common usage (even Tocqueville used it). North? South? Latin? Be 
                               precise. If you mean "United States," you probably should write that, instead. 
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 prime example of wordy imprecision. How about "an example"?
u. really                   I find this to be a really weak attempt to “intensify” an argument. It is really ineffective.
v. not overly            The use of this phrase is not overly effective in most essays.
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. Therefore, find another word.
y. starts off              When your essay starts off with such phrases, it can rarely rise to great heights of analysis.
z. I guarantee you  Just state things confidently and leave it at that. I guarantee you it's enough. 
aa. being that         Since. Being that it is useless, eliminate this very sloppy phrase.
bb. pretty                This is not a useful modifier. It is pretty interesting that students tend to overuse this word.
cc. loosing              Losing (this has become an epidemic in paper writing; spell it correctly).
dd. focus in on        Focus (on). Focus in on eliminating unneeded words.
ee. plenty of           Too colloquial  There is plenty of room for better choices—indeed, a plenitude of them. 
ff. seeing how         Seeing how this is very colloquial, it detracts from the precision you need in your writing.
hh. around              You might mean “approximately." There are around a hundred better ways to convey this.
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. Based off of my reading experience, I suggest dropping it.
nn.olden days         Employ more historiographical perspicacity. Grandma gets to say it; you don't.
oo. essentially        Essentially, it is wordy and imprecise, and not worthy of your well-argued paper. If you 
                               want even more reasons, consider current academic debates about “essentialism.”
pp. bottom line       Unless you mean to use it precisely (by referring to balance sheets), find another term. 
                               It has become a “lazy” phrase that only approximates “main point.” Bottom line? Drop it.
[b] Wordee RF

Wow. That's a long list (I hear you cry). 

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 exact same problems I had with my writing in college, and I sense that the situation is not overly different today or in my own youth from what it was like in olden times

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
And here we get to the points I would like to consider today. Two things are absolutely necessary for becoming the kind of writer who simply understands (even in "first draft" mode) that "messy" items such as those in the columns above just make everything more difficult for everybody. They confuse your reader, and are only useful if you are just trying to make it all of the way to the word (or page) limit set by your teachers. Wordy slop such as "focusing in on" only helps a writer toward one goal—getting it over with

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:

All good reading is rereading; all good writing is rewriting.

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 a fair amount of inelegant writing. This is a shame, especially since almost everyone has more opportunity for practice than ever before. Except for inveterate (not invertebrate) letter writers in days of yore, almost no one wrote as much "per day" as everybody does today.

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 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
Overly Colloquial Language
No, I don't mean to have you start speaking and writing the King's English (or the Emperor's Mandarin). Some language is so speech-centered and colloquial, however, that it needs to be used in a medium or genre somewhat more "loose" than academic prose.

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