May 13, 2008

Language Abuse - On Being a Professional Amateur

In Maya’s second post, she writes about some of the ways writers abuse language. How have you seen other writers abuse language? Leave a comment and let us know! And, if you haven’t already, check out Maya’s first post of the series on “sloppiness.”

Language Abuse
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Sample sentence: To attempt any consideration of Gaudi's life, he must be placed in his time and located in his place. To accomplish this, an overstanding of how he came to be is indispensable.

These two sentences have several problems:
  1. Bloat
  2. Word misuse
  3. Redundancy
Sentence #1 begins: "To attempt any consideration of..." When you see a phrase like this in your prose, deconstruct it. Try simpler synonyms for the words you've chosen. A bare bones rendering of this phrase is "To try to think about."

But that's not all. This is action once-removed. We are not going to think about Gaudi's life, we're only going to try to think about it.

The sentence continues: "he must be placed in his time and located in his place." This is a passive and bloated way of saying, "we must know when and where he lived."

Sentence #2 tells us what we must do to accomplish "this." "This" what? To accomplish trying to think about Gaudi's life, or to accomplish placing him? Oh, and don't bother to look up "overstanding" in the dictionary—it's not a word. The writer meant "understanding," but wanted something that sounded bigger and less ordinary.

Ultimately, he meant to say: "To understand Gaudi's life, we must understand the context in which he lived it." And: "To understand Gaudi, we must understand the forces that shaped him."

If you're thinking that the second sentence is virtually a repeat of the first, you're right. The writer used two sentences to convey what he might have done more clearly in one. In the end, he failed to convey the idea because he was overreaching. He was trying to sound eloquent by reaching for words and phrasings he wasn't at home with.

What to do? When you write, write simply. Get down the bones of your story. Use words that come naturally to you—words you don't have to look up. Go back later with your editor hat on and maybe look for nicer, more eloquent words and phrasings. But make sure you know your tools—words—before you use them. And don't repeat yourself—say it once; say it best.

This post reminds me of the old KISS philosophy: Keep It Simple, Stupid. It's true, though. There's no reason to say more than you need to. You're just wasting good words. What are your thoughts?


Sherer said...

Here is my question, sometimes a bit of redundancy - especially when dealing with a difficult subject matter. sometimes a bit of redundancy can really help you understand what is being written. And help you understand what is being written.

Kaath9 said...

There's an old teacher's saw that amounts to "third time's a charm" and having done instructional design for 15 years I can vouch for the fact that repeating facts three times is helpful for retention. And the repetitions are not veiled. The student is aware that they're being coached.

In fiction, I think the intent is different. You want the reader to remember not so much the facts of the story as the emotional imprint of the story. That's why I think saying something once evocatively is more powerful than saying it three times less effectively.

When we do repeat I think we need to bring new information to the fore so that the effect is cumulative. However, the sort of repetition I see often in amateur prose is the sort that makes you think the writer conceived of three different ways to say something (Jo is beautiful, let's say) and couldn't decide which one to use. So the reader gets: Jo is so beautiful she makes birds swoon. The birds fall out of the trees onto the sidewalk at seeing Jo's beauty. There are dead birds wherever Jo walks, bowled over by her beauty.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I've been seeing an alarming number of misplaced modifiers of late. Stuff like: "Propping himself up with his pillow, his eyes closed."



Kaath9 said...

I've got to add that to my list!

Puts one in mind of the old joke about a man with a wooden leg named Smith.

Someone's eyes propping themselves up with a pillow (or worse, propping their human up with a pillow) is well ... a bit scary.

And you're right, this happens a lot.