Saturday, January 23, 2010

How to Avoid Gobbledygook Phrases

In our continuing series on small but crucial ways to improve your writing, we've focused on the plague of unneccesary quotation marks and missplaced apostrophes. Today, we turn the spotlight on identifying (and of course then removing) the kinds of gobbledygook phrases that tend to creep into our writing. Thoughts, anyone?

19 Comments:

At 11:22 AM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

When I first started in journalism, I thought quotation marks were invented by reporters who didn't understand what was said, but suspected it was too important to leave out.

 
At 11:28 AM, Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

... And, not to ignore the gobbledygook-phrase focus of your post, I offer my personal, least-favorite: Level playing field.

 
At 1:00 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

At it's mildest it's usually just jargon-creep or the emotional distancing inherent in academese or lawyerese. At it's most virulent, it's the mental viruses or memes of Orwellian newspeak and doublethink. I often imagine what Orwell would think of contemporary political rhetoric, which in many ways seems to be the full flowering of his darkest predictions about the perversion of clear language into deliberate misdirection.

Wasn't it Al Haig, under the Carter Admin., who talked about nounizing verbs and verbizing nouns? That's exactly the sort of crap we're discussing here. You know that realpolitik-speak has become normative when no one in the media raises their eyebrows anymore at a bastard word like "incentivize."

Orwell also warned that we will know that fascism has finally won over in Western culture when the rhetoric is about making war to preserve Freedom; once again he was prescient.

 
At 1:08 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

TJ, that first one made me laugh. I'll be plenty of civilians have all kinds of mistaken understandings such as that. Art, I don't recall that bit of Haigism, but it sure sounds like the kind of collosal stupidity he'd come up with. These verbal crutches are largely a result of our natural inclination to let the lazy usage of our spoken language slip into written language. Even the most veteran writers among us have to be eternally vigilant about this issue. And one of my most hated phrase: "step to the plate," used in the context of facing difficult situation. But there are so many from which to choose...

 
At 1:28 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Ooooh, here's one I REALLY hate:

"send a message"

 
At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

The ideal riposte to that phrase from Sam Goldwyn:

"If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

 
At 2:42 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Bluster, it's oh so great to have you back. How've things been going in Okie country?

 
At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

Blustery. On Xmas eve, we had a blizzard alert, first one recorded here.

 
At 2:54 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Lucky you. It's a pretty standard occurence in Ohio, as you know.

 
At 3:04 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

Phrases often seen consorting with "send a message":

"Encourage our enemies" and "discourage our troops"

 
At 9:12 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Even a pub as well-edited as Slate.com routinely lets lazy phrases such as "part and parcel" get past. That and "brand new" are the kinds of phrases I have in mind that we all say in conversation, but which should never occur in written language.

 
At 4:13 AM, Blogger Kim said...

I tend to chuckle at the phrase *true fact* (as opposed to those horribly misleading false facts?)

 
At 6:14 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Or its kissing cousin, "frankly speaking." Kim, are you an insomniac?

 
At 9:12 AM, Blogger Britta said...

I've mentioned my ESOL tutoring before in this space, but it really does make me pull back from using even what I'd consider a clear idioms where a single word will do. The example from yesterday's lesson was "bad off." We spent 10 minutes of explanation to understand it was equivalent to "unlucky" (in the selection we worked), you think using unlucky in the first place is far better.

 
At 9:20 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's interesting. I'm sure teaching people English as a second language makes the language come alive for you in new and interesting ways.

 
At 10:00 AM, Blogger Kim said...

John, I think that's a trick question. If I say yes, I am an insomniac, would that beg the question if I were using your blog as a cure? *smile* but yes, I occasionally suffer from insomnia. However, today, I was merely an early riser. I start most days around 4-430 AM. I work best when it's dead silent. No distractions.

 
At 10:03 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good for you, Kim. I kind of figured that was the situation. And my writing has been known to be a cause of insomnia, but rarely a cure. But we'll keep trying on that front. Promise!

 
At 9:44 PM, Anonymous Lou said...

Long story short - never is.
Vis-a-vis - did you mean visene?
Touching base - in public?

 
At 10:27 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

All eminently worthy of scorn, especially that first one. Thanks, Lou.

 

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