An erratic guide to consistent writing.
Good writing is easy to describe but almost impossible to define. A significant part of this dichotomy is to be found in what some writers call ‘the window’: is the point of writing to show a beautiful world beyond the window (‘clear glass’) or is it to display the high quality of writing itself (‘stained glass’)?
Different forms of writing gravitate to one of these poles: poetry and much literary fiction is less about what is depicted, but more about how the language depicts and draws out the themes, gravitating towards stained glass; genre fiction is predisposed to clear glass in order to show a story of immense proportions and a well-built world.
Writing in other capacities has other demands: a business e-mail must be courteous but brief; a note of thanks or sympathy must be sincere without making it all about the sender, and so on.
Based on the principle that, although words can have vague or conflicting meanings, it is best to err on the side of prescriptivism for clarity’s sake, here are five words to use carefully, why, and what it is often better to use instead.
This is an unwieldy word because, like decimate, its definition(s) is/are disputed. Some people, upon looking at this word, would assume that it is a fancy synonym for enormousness and use it as such.
However, its other (and, I would argue, real) meaning is great badness or evil and can only refer to scale when such a scale is in itself intimidating or evokes negative feeling, not unlike the older meaning of awful (i.e. inspiring awe or fear). Most attempts to justify enormity as an extension of enormousness, even by professional bodies, seem to end up proving the point in the examples that they use. Merriam-Webster uses a glut of literary examples to refute the point that I would make, but all of them clearly use enormity in part to demonstrate the scale as well as the contingent evil or ensuing misery, not simply as a fussy way of saying ‘big’. Compare the following:
The enormity of these cuts to the funding of public health will be condemned by future generations.
The enormity of his biceps made my heart flutter.
Neither of these sentences is particularly elegant, but the latter is especially grisly English. It is also a good example of the virtue of refraining from the thesaurus: using a simple adjective like size instead of enormity improves the sentence dramatically.
Use enormity only in the context of great wrong or evil to avoid confusion, if at all. Immensity is a much better word for describing great scale without evoking questions of morality or suffering.
Verdict: With great vocabulary comes responsible enormity.
This is a particularly awful word. It is part of that soulless, English-adjacent noise which fills offices throughout the world and is recorded in e-mails alongside formulated lies like, ‘Just to advise’ (which does not mean, ‘here is some advice’ but ‘I am now telling you’), or ‘Just a reminder’ (which means, ‘I forgot to tell you when I should have done, so now I am telling you and hoping that you will not realize’), or ‘Please action that’, which means ‘do that’ but has extra syllables, thus showing how importantest/more gooderer the sender is.
Impactful is probably of mid-20th Century provenance, and I would not be surprised to learn that it popped out of a marketer’s mouth in a moment of cursed inspiration and we have been lumbered with it ever since.
People use impactful when they want to stress that something has an impact. All well and good, except that the fact of an impact is not very informative. A slap to the face has an impact. So does flicking a balloon, being shot by a bullet, or doodling on a piece of paper. An impact can be momentous or very minor indeed.
What most people and people-adjacent entities mean when they say impactful is usually something like profound or effective or moving.
His writing is very impactful.
His writing is very profound.
His writing is very effective.
His writing is very moving.
His writing is very impressive.
Notice how the latter sentences imply much more than mere impact. Impact, by the way, is a useful word, and should not be shunned, but impactful is, counter-intuitively, vacuous, awkward, uninformative, unimpressive, ineffective, and just generally pants.
Verdict: Avoid unless you want your audience to experience that sinking feeling that comes when a meeting runs into its 100th minute.
A peculiar word, pressurize appears to derive from to put under pressure and to press. When most people see the word press nowadays, they probably think of keys or, for those who remember physical books and newspapers, printing.
Pressurize is odd in that press was already doing the work of the word and took up much less space. Perhaps, with the advent of the pressure cooker and scientific equipment related to studying or applying pressure, a distinction was called for which distinguished to press – in the sense of applying a force to an object – from to press – in the sense of applying a greater degree of force to an entire object in the manner of an atmosphere; the term pressurize seems to draw upon this second definition more than the first.
Oddly, its counterpart, depressurize is a staple of science-fiction, and it is quite natural to speak of cabin pressurization, rather than cabin pressing. I do not propose to speculate why this might be, but I would not warn writers away from these nouns as I would from the verb.
Both the figurative and less figurative forms of pressurize can be replaced with better, less cumbersome words. Coerce, persuade and push are just three examples, alongside the obvious press, although this may not fit any better than pressurize. You may have to be rather more inventive in some cases than others, but whatever you do, never have the dragon or giant robot threaten to pressurize the protagonist to death.
Verdict: Use will seriously endanger any attempt to maintain an interesting atmosphere.
This snigger-inducing word appears in reviews and articles all over the place, in which contexts its meaning is usually clear: relating to the title of the work as in, ‘Harry, the titular character of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘.
However, titular originally meant pertaining to a title in name only and still means someone whose title, or claim to a title, comes without any real substance because that responsibility is delegated to another or has vanished. Roman Catholic clergy sometimes might be referred to as, for example, the titular Bishop of X where X is a see or jurisdiction which no longer exists.
Instead of the angular and potentially technical titular, consider the quirky and much more relevant eponymous whose narrow definition leaves no room for doubt.
Verdict: Has no power here.
Unlike impactful, unique is actually an excellent word. Unfortunately, it is not always used properly because, despite its frequent and correct use in popular media, it has somehow become synonymous with unusual or distinctive.
For the avoidance of all doubt, unique means one of a kind or singular. If something is unique, there are no other examples of it. It exists, therefore, as a binary state. Something is unique or it is not. It cannot be quite unique, very unique, incredibly unique, more unique, less unique, and certainly not, as I once read in a forum, somewhat unique.
The presence of a modifier should be an immediate warning in your own writing that you have used unique incorrectly. Review the clause and think, ‘What do I actually mean by this?’ Most of the time, distinctive and unusual or their synonyms will do the job properly.
There is an exception, however. It is possible, although not necessarily advisable, to refer to something as almost unique. The implication here is that there may be one or two things like it, but there is also a degree of doubt hanging over the assertion.
Verdict: This word is one of a kind and should be used as such.