I’ve ranted elsewhere about bad habits of speech, including my own.
This entry is mostly about things I see in writing. That means someone is supposed to have thought a little before putting it down, and presumably thinks it makes sense. I’ve beaten this poor horse before, of course: that bad communication can really impair getting ANYTHING done, including the activism that prompted me to establish this blog.
First, let’s get this out of the way:
Things that I won’t complain of: playing around with language.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ caused a whole generation to grow up thinking the obscure variant “prophesize” was the only such word, unaware of the standard verb “prophesy”. No great harm. Dylan might have been playing around with dialect, or he might have just been ignorant. I suspect the latter, but the meaning is clear, and that’s what’s important.
I like to use the occasional spoonerism or malapropism myself.
It’s just playing, and doesn’t mess with the meaning of what’s being said, or that’s not the intent, anyway.
Things that I WILL complain of
(1) Errors that can make the meaning unclear, or show that the writer is ignorant of the meaning of a word or stock phrase
● Using “quality” as an adjective
English is very flexible because it’s not inflected much, i.e., words that serve as one part of speech don’t usually need to be given a different ending when they’re used for a different part of speech. It’s what makes a sentence like “Grace me no grace and uncle me no uncles!” possible.
Nouns, verbs, and adjectives can freely move into a new role, morph to another meaning in that role, and then go back again. In case this isn’t clear:
“Let there be light!” (noun)
“get the tinder to light” (intransitive verb)
“light a lamp.” (transitive verb)
“put a light in the window.” (noun, with slightly different meaning)
So ordinarily it wouldn’t bother me at all that a noun becomes an adjective, even if the habit is taken from adspeak. (Sometimes adspeak makes some sense. “Donut” is a more sensible spelling than “doughnut”.)
Some time long ago, “high-quality” came to replace “good” in ads. Why didn’t they just say “good”? Because some writer wanted to make it longer. Some people think more letters means you’re saying more. They’re wrong.
Then “high-quality used cars” morphed into “quality used cars”, simply because “high-quality” was such a familiar phrase it could be chopped down (maybe to fit on a sign) and still recognized. It’s as if all these standard phrases were abbreviated thus:
“high-speed rail” to “speed rail”
“red-tailed hawk” to “tailed hawk”
“one-hoss shay to “hoss shay”
Already, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this kind of mutilation, but it might still be ok if the the phrase on the left were as extremely familiar as “high-quality”.
But there’s a very different problem with “quality”. Its whole reason for existing as a word is to be described: to be modified by an adjective or prepositional phrase. It means “characteristic”, and means nothing if you don’t tell what that characteristic is.
So the point is, my head hurts when I read something like “Our children deserve a quality education” in propaganda. What quality of education? The writer is not saying.
● “take another tact”
● “by and large”
does NOT mean “for the most part”, or “usually”. It means “all the time, without exception”. You can sail “by the wind” (close to the wind), or “large” (ahead of the wind), but if you’re sailing at all, it’s one or the other. “By and large” means “no matter which way you’re going” or “under all conditions”. A secondary meaning might be “after all the data are in”, e.g., after you have tried out the ship both “by” and “large”.
You’ll find that Cecil has a different view of this: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1908/what-is-the-origin-of-by-and-large but it’s not corroborated by anything else I could find. The safest course, unless you’re a 150 year-old sailor, is not to use this phrase at all.
People often use this to simply say that something is bad or wrong. Why don’t they just use “bad” or “wrong”? That’s not what “problematic” means. It means that something is a “problem” in a rather specific sense: that of a math problem. Something unclear or uncertain, yet to be fully explained.
● “wet your appetite”
Now that hardly anyone in North America makes a distinction between “wh” and “w” in pronunciation, people can easily forget that there is a word “whet”, but there is. It means “sharpen”, usually by some kind of scraping. You know what a whetstone is? Google it.
There are two different words spelled this way in English, borrowed from two different languages, both meaning “strong” in the original language. They have two different meanings and pronunciations in English.
Italian musical term: It means “play this part louder than usual” and is pronounced “for-tay”. Trilling the “r” is optional.
French fencing term: It means the “strong” part of the blade, closer to the hilt, and is pronounced “fort”. Gargling the “r” is optional. Sword blades are usually thinner as they get near the tip, but more importantly, the fencer has more leverage against the opponent’s blade if the opposing blade is closer to one’s own hand. Much of fencing is about pushing against the opponent’s “foible” (old word for “weak”) with one’s own “forte”.
So if you’re talking about something that you want to be loud about, or emphasize, it might make sense to say “That is my for-tay.”, but I’ve rarely or never heard it used that way.
● “could care less”
In my childhood people used this in a way that made sense: “I couldn’t care less.”, meaning “I care so little that it is not possible to care less.”
“Could care less” means the opposite: that one DOES care SOME.
● “by the same token…”
does NOT mean “at the same time” or “on the other hand”. It is not a way to introduce something contrasting or unrelated. It means “for the same reason”, or “indicated by the same visible signs”, and should introduce something very directly related, and in agreement with the previous sentence or clause. I don’t like the phrase much at all myself, but if you must use it, it should go something like: “If a dog bites a man, it’s not news. If a man bites a dog, it’s news. By the same token, if banks rob people, it’s not news. If people rob banks, it’s news.”
(2) Next are some things that aren’t really wrong, but as a matters of style they can really mark the writer as a bit uh… “strange”.
● Ending with a slogan:
I don’t see this very often, but it’s out there. At the very end of a letter, email, or signed statement of some kind, just above the signature, or whatever passes for it, something that one would never speak in conversation. A few choice ones gathered from some of our more remarkable personalities:
“Repectfully, Troops home today, Trials tomorrow!”
“With hope and audacity,”
It often takes the form of “For…!”
“For Cindy Sheehan, and a California Green Party Alternative US Congress,”
“For womyn’s rights and power, for feminism,”
“For peace and justice, against obama and the dnc,”
“For self-determination of all oppressed people and nations within and without Iran and the same for the US,”
“For the continual growth of the social justice movement here and abroad!”
Had enough? I’ve seen this sort of thing much more in 80 year-old letters, or translated from other languages. In other times and places, it might be a much more common habit, but definitely NOT among present-day Americans. Using it here and now marks you as maybe affected, maybe a member of a bizarre little subculture, maybe an agent from Cuba. It’s no way to recruit anyone for a mass movement, that’s for sure.
● “All out for …..”
I occasionally see this as a heading on some kind of announcement of a demo. Used to be, when a group of people “came out” it meant they were going on strike. It was a serious demonstration of power, hurting the enemy in a very direct way. An order “All out for ….” still carries a connotation that there’s an organized action decided upon by a large membership with some considerable collective power, and that someone has the authority to issue it as an order. If you’re just an organization with no real power organizing a demo, using that phrase makes you sound like a nut house Napoleon shouting orders to an imaginary army.
Imperative sentences with some evil noun after “Stop” or “End” might have their place if the message goes on to explain exactly how it will be done. On the other hand, something like “Stop Racism!” or “End Oppression!” sounds like you think it’s a very simple thing with a single cause, that can be ended by the reader.
(3) a couple of my favorites: pretending to say something without saying anything
● in a bio: failure to tell what happened
People who teach people how to write resumes give this as perhaps the #1 rule: Make simple declarative statements about what you did, with transitive verbs and direct objects. Not “Was manager of…” or “Was active in…” but “Stuffed envelopes”, “Designed graphics”, “Composed communications”. The fact that you held a title or sat in the meetings says nothing. What you did is what matters, and you need to say it.
● Failure to say what you’re going to do
I’d kinda like to see the word “support” banned from political discourse.
It always bugged me to hear people say “Support the team!” at pep rallies, as if people in the stands could have any effect on the outcome of the game. If they could, it would be a crooked game.
If you support a woman’s right to choose, it might mean you’re donating to a clinic or escorting patients in and out.
If you support the war, it means you’re enlisting, or asking the government to accept more than the usual taxes from you.
If you support a candidate, it means donating, walking precincts, or working phones.
If you’re asking for my “support”, what do you want me to DO?