Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A wrongheaded “dead words” movement

“The goal is livelier writing. The result can be confusion”: “‘Use More Expressive Words!’ Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore” (The Wall Street Journal ).

Removing empty words such as really from formal prose is a good thing. But for teachers to ban, say, I , it , said , see , walk , and why as “dead words”: that way madness lies. Such teachers fail to understand that putting in “better” words is not the way to better writing, and that plain words typically offer the most intelligent way to say what needs to be said. Dressing up in an awkward costume doesn’t make a writer look smart. It makes a writer look awkward — and dumb. Did I peruse the tome? No, I read the book.

The dumbness of one board of education’s “Said is Dead” list may be seen in its details: spieled , whistled , and verbalized, for instance, are preposterous substitutes for said. And miffed is not a substitute at all. (“Dumb list,” he miffed.) At least they were smart enough to leave out ejaculated .

From The Elements of Style, fourth edition:

Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: “he consoled,” “she congratulated.” They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.
Note especially the last sixteen words.

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Beware of the saurus : Ending a sentence with it

comments: 6

Daughter Number Three said...

It may have been another list mentioned in an article I read about this story, but one verb I saw listed was "emitted." Yeah, that's effective writing.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, it’s in the “said” list, between struggled and wearied . Yikes.

stefan said...

Here's what you get when you follow such advice: "Hamlet refrains from continuing." He was speaking, you see, and then he...refrained from continuing. Or, you know, stopped.

Michael Leddy said...

That sounds like it’s from life. It reminds me of a student who was taught to write It is observed that rather than I .

Diane Schirf said...

When I used to try to write, i did a lot of this, and always ended up changing it back to "said" and "asked," etc. Anything else sounded awful, and it took away from description. I have a weird fondness for "said." I remember reading the color-coded SRA cards and for some reason "said" struck me as a solid, almost tangible word. I could feel said. Weird kid, eh?

Michael Leddy said...

“Said,” “solid” — that seems pretty plausible to me. The single syllable and the -d make a compact, bricklike word.