One thing I’ve learned during a decade of teaching writing in universities and two decades as a newsroom writing coach is the importance of the small things.
The single syllable, for example.
On one hand, single-syllable words are the province of naturally gifted writers. Writers who diligently choose the briefest, brightest, truest version of a word are also invariably the briefest, brightest, truest writers.
On the other hand, writers who are enchanted with unnecessary syllables are invariably bloviators whose work buckles under the weight of many small things.
Death by a thousand cuts.
The bloviator writes, for example:
• “They say they’re happy with the pay but are looking for PERMANENCY.” What’s wrong with permanence?
• “They plan to test the students’ linguistic COMPETENCY.” What’s wrong with competence?
• “The federal government is forcing more EXPENDITURES on the states.” More expense or spending.
• “He said he was satisfied with the president’s LEVEL OF ACCESSIBILITY.” Said he was satisfied with his access to the president.
• “Most states are EXPERIENCING higher revenues than expected.” The states can’t experience anything — they might raise, collect, amass, accumulate, etc. The rampant misapplication of the verb experience is tiresome jargon.
• “Station managers said they hoped the public would be pleased with the new PROGRAMMING.” The new programs. Programming is a process, and programs the result.
When writers fall in love with long and unfamiliar words because they seem more impressive, inaccuracies are sure to follow:
• “It’s the story of a Roman Catholic NOVITIATE who discovered she was a Jew.” She was a novice, not a novitiate. A novitiate is the novice program itself or the place that houses religious novices — as the following makes clear: “The candidates arrive and immediately occupy their rooms in the novitiate. Then they witness the first vows of the previous novice class.”
Writers who are enchanted with unnecessary syllables are also enchanted with the adverb’s “-LY” syllable — even when it’s wrong:
• “Forensics analyzed the victim’s BODILY FLUIDS.” Why “bodily” rather than body? Those fluids are body fluids. Would we say “bodily odor”? Bodily parts? Bodily fat? Bodily heat? No. We’d use the simple and accurate adjective body.
• “His family DOUBTLESSLY will wait for the investigators’ report and do nothing for the moment.” Doubtless is the conventional adverb (plus it works overtime as an adjective). And doubtless neither needs nor wants that gratuitous “-LY.”
Then we have Let’s-Make-Up-a-Word bloviation:
• “The consultants suggested OPTIMALIZING existing equipment instead.” Optimalizing? That word is optimizing.
• Team members said they would announce the results of their ANALYZATION at Monday’s conference.” What’s wrong with analysis?
• “The hassle began when two employees reported what they called ‘IMPROPRIETOUS’ actions on Brady’s part.” That may have been what the employees said, but the fact that the reporter enclosed ‘improprietous’ in quotation marks shows he was holding his nose — and with good reason. What he needed in this paraphrase was an actual word. Improper would do.
• “Some pledges said the restriction on their movements was an ANNOYMENT.” Anyone for annoyance?
• “As the plot thickens, he UNMERCILESSLY stalks his victims.” This example shows us how a double negative can hide meaning. This writer doesn’t mean “unmercilessly,” which denotes with mercy. He means unmercifully or mercilessly,which denote without mercy.
More trouble with a negative prefix:
• “He denied the charges UNCATEGORICALLY.” “Uncategorically” is not a word — and if it were, it would mean the opposite of how it’s used here. We need to lose the prefix and make it categorically — which means unconditionally, without qualification.
• “Which plan you choose depends upon how your retirement package is structured and ORIENTATED.” In American English, this word is orient, not “orientate.” Therefore: Depends upon how your retirement package is structured and oriented.
• “Typical UTILIZATION of the network was close to 75 percent.” OK, here we go. “Utilization,” despite a certain technical and narrow use in the business world, is a perfect representative for bloviation. Beyond that technical and narrow use, however, the word “utilization” is nothing but empty air, nothing but the enchantment of unnecessary syllables. And all its five syllables taken together never mean more than the lovely little single-syllable word use.
Paula LaRocque is author of five books, among them “The Book on Writing.” Her latest work, a mystery, is “Monkey See,” available on Amazon.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com