Monday, October 20, 2008

Good Advice from The Atlantic:
In General, Avoid Fancy Words

'Last June, the Los Angeles Times published a complaint from a reader named Grant Nemirow about all the obscure words that had appeared in a single article, a profile of director M. Night Shyamalan: phantasmagoria, bucolic, aesthetic, soupçon, diminution, schadenfreude, contretemps, and vicissitudes. “Ask people if they know what these words mean,” Nemirow wrote. “They don’t.” Other Times readers all but hooted Nemirow down. But maybe he was right?...Oscar Wilde, of all people, once wrote, “It is perhaps a dangerous thing for a country to be too eloquent.” William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White put it differently. In their classic Elements of Style, they advise, “Avoid fancy words.”'
--From the In a Word column in the current issue of The Atlantic, whose print and web versions have just received a major redesign.


At 11:38 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

There was an argument not too long ago around this very issue. The advice that was argued with was given as, Avoid pretentious words in your writing. The rebuttal was, It's not pretension, it's called having a vocabulary.

Personally, I knew all of those words, from phantasmagoria to vicissitudes. No problem.

That said, Strunk & White are usually correct in their advice. I still recommend that to people as a style guide.

But avoiding fancy words in essay or journalism is one thing, while dumbing-down the vocabulary in fiction or poetry is an entirely different animal. In the prior context, it makes sense; it the latter context, it leads us to the bland "no-style" style that dominates the fiction best-seller list, which is a sin in its own right.

Probably there's a genuine middle ground.

For myself, with regard to Nemorow's complaint, I have to say: the failures of someone else's education is no reason to modify myself.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Who could argue with any of that, Art? And yes, the middle ground is often the best place to be.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I meant to say by using the phrase "in general" in the headline, I meant to signal that I agreed with this with some major qualifications.

At 12:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver." Proverbs 25:11

I knew this guy in high school who was crazy about words and tried to learn a new word every day. He grew up to be a writer, and I have seen cases where these fancy schmancy words have lent his work and authority and precision that have served both he and his readers well. I like being stretched and challenged.

However in writing, as in moral theology (since I went all out and quoted a bible verse), intention matters. Peppering one's work with obsure vocabulary for the purpose of calling attention to your own intellect is just obnoxious.

At 2:46 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

It seems a shame to use a crescent wrench when you have a set of chrome-vanadium metric wrenches on hand.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

He's back! You wouldn't believe how many people have sent emails lately, calling you their favorite commenter, and hoping you'd come back. Well, okay, it wasn't hundreds, or even dozens, but a few.

At 3:12 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

I feel like the Fonz walking onto the set and getting a smattering of applause.

I see that writer/director Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") has a new film coming out, "Synecdoche, New York."

The word "synecdoche" hasn't been in my working vocabulary. It's one of those words I look up repeatedly, because it has the magical power to erase itself from my memory.

A better way to remember it than its definition (substitution of a part for whole) is by example:

The ship was lost with all hands.
I got a new set of wheels.
Hungry mouths to feed.
Hand me a Kleenex.
Nice threads.

Now impress your friends when this movie is released and the inevitable question is asked.


At 3:16 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's a good example of a word that doesn't really have a simpler synonym, though one doesn't often have the need to use it, when you do, you need to use that very word.

And Eternal Sunshine was an amazing movie (unlike Being John Malkovich, I thought), so it will be interesting to see if this is anywhere near as good, Fonz.

Funny, but Henry Winkler was on the tube just the other day, reminding the world that Fonz wasn't meant to grow old. I'd prefer to remember the guy as hewas. Glad I'll never get old...

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Lately some of my favorite words have been borrow-words from Greek, mostly used in English in theological contexts. I'm writing a poem series titled with some of these words.

Folks are making lots of good points. I completely agree that intention matters a very great deal. The intention to be obscure in order to look smart—obscurity for the sake of being obscure—is something I abjure.

The point made about a large vocabulary giving the options to be ever more precise in your speech is one I completely agree with. Precision as well as concision is paramount in good writing, in my opinion, poetry OR prose. Sometimes the most precise word is the more complex one. I do appreciate concision and compression in writing, but I wouldn't sacrifice precision for the sake of a shorter word unless the shorter word could convey the same meaning.

After all, life is a nuanced affair, made of many interfingering colors and shades, and not just the 6 provided colors that come in basic construction paper sheaves. "Red" is not a single color, but an overview of a large and nuanced spectrum.

At 5:49 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The intention to be obscure in order to look smart--otherwise known as academic writing--is the bane of our existence. That's precisely what I was zeroing in on. It's hard to define when that's happening, rather than the use of just the right word for precision and clarity. But like the Supreme Court justice said of porn, we all know it when we see it.

At 8:30 PM, Anonymous MilesB said...

I tell my students to avoid 50-cent words when they can and just go with the nickel or dime version.

But like Art, I knew what all of those words meant as well. I'm afraid that this may be tied to that overall cultural zeitgeist (how's that for academic) wherein a person with a college education and who knows how to speak well and think clearly is labeled an "elitist" and that this is now an insult.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think having a large vocabulary has little to do with one's schooling, and everything to do with the frequency and quality of one's reading habits. Diligent readers learn lots of words, while non-readers don't.

At 3:33 AM, Blogger Jeanne said...

I knew all those words because they are French or German. However I would used them lightly in a conversation with American speakers and would consider context and audience.

But sometimes in the passion of a discussion only certain words will flash through my mind. I love contretemps, it can provide the perfect excuse to eliminate any soupçon and avoid a diminution of goodwill.

Schadenfreude, zeitgeist and leitmotif are specifics and should be used sparingly.

I have never personally used vicissitudes in French or English conversation, there is just something depressing about the ups and downs that is conjured with that word, it is a little too much like Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

But nothing to me is as seductive as words and languages. I was attending a meeting not too long ago with native French colleagues and the fluidity and command of the language was hypnotic. Later after the meeting we all went out for dinner and as the wine poured the tone became more casual but remained eloquent. It was a meeting of the mind resulting in conviality and a great feeling of bien être.


It is always fun to stop by your blog.


At 6:23 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

There's nothing like a solid grounding in Romance languages to improve your command of English. Thanks for adding so much to the conversation, Daniella.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Jeff Hess said...

Shalom John,

For me the question becomes clearer when you invert the rule to get: never use the general when the specific is available.

A simple example would be to not refer to a child but rather a girl (or boy, depending upon appropriate gender).



At 9:16 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, indeed. There's a great passage in Strunk & White's Elements of Style that talks about this. It notes that if those who have studied good writing can agree on any one thing, it's that good writing is specific, definite and concrete. And thus it draws pictures in the mind.

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Pat said...

Have not been able to read all the comments before mine yet, but I do want to say that Elements of Style is one of my favorite books. I taught a six-week writing workshop a few years ago and this was something I would stress: use the simplest, and yet most precise word possible. As stated above, intention matters.

One of my pet peeves is the use ("utilization," heh heh) of the word "utilize." The word "use" is much nicer, in my opinion, and, of course, much simpler. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with using a "big word," if that's the one that fits best.

At 10:35 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Pat, you've wonderfully zeroed in on one of the best examples of a word that's used, improperly in my view, rather than the more appropriate, simpler word. Utilize rather than use in a sentence inevitably signals something bad. Utilize is just one of those bastardized words that generally doesn't belong in any sentence. It's just bad English.

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous MilesB said...

That's it. The 50-cent word "utilize" as opposed to the far superior "use."

At 11:00 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I'd go even further, Miles, and say that "utilize" is the equivalent of a two-dollar bill, a fake word trying to be real. Any other good examples anyone want to offer?

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Pat said...'s another one -- a phrase, actually.

"Due to the fact that" is ugly. It should be banned in favor of "because." "Due to" implies an unavoidable effect. It is often used incorrectly. (Whatever "incorrectly" means these days, as our language is always changing.)

"Whether or not" should simply be "whether."

Hmmm... I'm sure I can think of more, but I should be working on something else. :-b

At 11:25 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, Pat, those fall under the heading of typical "clutter," all the extra words we throw into writing that don't belong there. The principle should be this: if a word isn't doing anything essential, take it out. Sentences and paragraphs should be like great buildings, with no extra bricks or stones added that don't belong. Putting sentences on a diet and stripping out all the non-essential words always has beneficial effects.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Pat said...

I burst out laughing at the following, which is attributed to Tony Lawrence. I found it here:

Many years ago I had a partner who sometimes liked to brag about his education. I think he liked it all the more because I am mostly self educated - I dropped out of high school the moment I was legally able.

Anyway, Don (we’ll call him Don because that was his name) had prepared a new company brochure and was presenting it to me and another partner. As I was reading it, I came across an interesting sentence:

‘We provide simple pneumonic phrases to help you remember the commands.’

“Don, what the hell is a ‘pneumonic phrase’, I asked (not all that pleasantly).

Don nearly preened himself. “Well, if you had the benefit of a college education, you’d know that a pneumonic is a memory aid.”

I shook my head. “I am an autodidact, you fatuous ass, but I know how to spell and I know that the word you were thinking of is ‘mnemonic’ and that YOUR word is more usually found in conjunction with plagues”. I wrote ‘MNEMONIC’ out in large letters as I said that.

‘Benefits of a college education’ indeed.

(Tee hee. Okay, I really am gonna leave now.)

At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

One who makes a comment is a commenter. His comments can be called a commentary.

The creator of a commentary is a commentator.

The comments made by a commentator are a commentation.

The creator of a commentation is a commentationist.

It could happen.

At 12:38 PM, Anonymous MilesB said...

Could it be that a "pneumonic phrase" is one that has an unusually high amount of hot air?

At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

Found this in the Urban Dictionary:

"In the novel 'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley, the word 'pneumatic' was used to describe the sensation of sex with the main female character Lenina. In this context it means well rounded, or bouncy, in reference to her breasts and her body."

"Lenina is quite pneumatic.... *pats Lenina's leg*"

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

When I revise I invariably compress. I take out a lot of slack stock filler phrases like those mentioned. I find that when I am just writing—because I often am an observer or recording angel taking it all in, without feeling like my ego has to be any part of it—I use far too much passive tense. When I revise, I often convert to more active verb forms.


Revision is compression. I remove many slack filler phrases. When I'm writing, I use too much passive tense; I tend to be an observer taking it all in, an egoless recording angel. When I revise, I often make verbs more active.


Freefrom writing flows smoothly, yet it often needs tightening up in revision. The rule I have, though, is that I never self-edit as I write, as that really blocks the flow. If I bring out the editor's mind too soon, it can kill the whole creative process. So I tend to just spew, then revise.

You're right about the hoary academic overusage of "utilize," but that's also just basic bureaucratese. Never say it clearly when you can say it five times as long, and more vaguely. Government documents are frequently full of this kind of crap. Blame the lawyers. It's why no one can understand the tax code. It's also why the military pays too much money for simple things.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

So glad to see this conversation has continued to rage like a kitchen grease fire in my brief absence. I'm quite enjoying it. Thanks, Art, for noting a crucial subset of the leading sources of bad writing and word usage: the bureaucratic mind. That's a huge area, of course. Sometimes their unclear language is simply a byproduct of unclear thinking, but of course it's also sometimes unclear in a purposeful way, to cloak unpleasant realities.

And Bluster, I'm not touching that Aldous Huxley stuff. Though I must admit, that's pretty much the kind of thing I think of when I see the word pneumatic.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

It depends on authenticity. If the words are true of the writer's voice, it works. If the writer is plucking willy nilly from his/her thesaurus to try to impress, it sounds pretentious. The reader can usually tell.

BTW...I did not get willy nilly from the thesaurus. Believe it or not, I really talk like that!

At 6:44 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, this goes right back to the earlier excellent comment about how in writing, as in moral theology, "intention matters." You've restated it from a slightly different, and equally valuable, perspective. I'm so pleased and overwhelmed by not only the quality but also the diversity of folks weighing in on this subject. Often, when we go off on a long comment string like this, it's mostly me and one other--or sometimes me and two others--folks commenting back and forth. Here, though, it's been a wonderfully pleasing abundance of the regular suspects all nicely chiming in with their take. I'm so thankful for you all.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Authenticity is one of my favorite words. It is a keystone word, not only to artistic truth, but to living one's life. The authentically lived life, or so the philosophers tell us, is essential to becoming a fully human being. Authenticity in one's art, even if it's imaginative, is why poetry is also often prophecy. The vatic mode in poetry, mimesis in fiction, these are all about truth and authenticity.

At 9:38 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Absent authenticity, there's nothing much of interest happening, is there? Notice how he threw in the word "vatic"? Twenty bucks says you'll need to look that one up. I'll save you a second (never let it be said we're not a service organization at heart):

At 11:24 PM, Anonymous rosa said...

Have been relishing articles by the creatively comic Joe Queenan. His vocabulary is not only extensive, it is appropriate and delightfully playful. Far from spotlighting his linguistic acumen to shout, "Hey, look at me!" he uses "fancy" but precise and creative words to spray his chosen target with a shower of guided missiles that somehow leaves me (uncharacteristically) cheering for the subject to be poetically razed.


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