An erratic guide to consistent writing.

Last week I started writing about Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and why I had to stop reading it only to discover that Mythcreants had beaten me to it by months, drawn the same conclusions, stopped in the same place, and been much funnier about it than I probably could have been. Still, it is comforting to have one’s opinion reflected by someone more established. If a non-zero number of people agrees with me, it must mean I am right! Right?

Having no other ideas to hand (to head?), I had no option but to abandon the week’s plans. Here, as a consolation prize before the next world-building post, are five more things to avoid writing.

As

Many people are in the habit of using as to mean because, especially when speaking. However, despite being easier to write, it has the strange effect of making text seem flaccid, probably because it is used in all manner of irritating conversations, such as e-mails at work (which continue to be the source of all grammar’s evils) and members of staff at the airport, whose forced politeness is peppered with words like as as part of their attempt to make it seem as though their job is to provide a pleasant service rather than obscure the horrible realities of commercial aviation. As also struggles to fit in with other devices, as as as has assorted associations and meanings, it can confuse sentences as well as assisting in their assassination.

It may be unfair to criticize as by as-sociation, but to protect your work from simpering sagginess, use because whenever possible, especially in formal writing. In dramatic pieces, for can also be used (sparingly).

Verdict: As I live and breathe, avoid!

Extreme Adjectivity

This is less a specific phrase or word than a family of phrases which tend to pop up when we are trying to impress a fact upon people. As such, when spoken, it is entirely forgivable.

Extreme adjectivity is my neologism for those places in serious writing when the writer puts two words together, usually an adjective and a noun or a pair of adjectives, whose combined semiotic weight is more than the sentence can reasonably bear, usually because of an explicit or implicit tautology. Violent punch, hugely big, ultimately final, and so on.

When written, these make the writer look unimaginative, or as someone who cannot function without being buried in a thesaurus. These are not necessarily accurate depictions of said writers because often people are trying to show off their prowess by forming these constructions. It is unnecessary, though: a punch is by definition violent; huge already means very big, and so on. Just write punch or huge: your reader will grasp the nuance.

There are some similar phrases which are commonplace and stand out much less, just to be extra unfair. Freezing cold, cruel torture, mad gibbering and so on. What distinguishes these from extreme adjectivity varies but, I would argue, freezing cold like searing heat uses a powerful word (freezing, searing) to modify a weak word and distinguish intense temperature from normal temperature. Cruel torture and mad gibbering on the other hand have modifiers which are related to the noun (we tend to assume that torture is cruel and mad people gibber) but are not tautologous. So, to avoid extreme adjectivity, the writer must avoid tautology and pay attention to the intensity of the words involved.

Verdict: Bigly huge mistake. Sad.

‘I could care less’

This is an American phrase which has crept over to the UK recently. It may be a natural idiom to Americans but it is precisely the sort of thing which winds up people like me because it tells the reader nothing except that the person cares at least a bit and possibly a great deal! All we know is that it is possible to care less about the issue than you, perhaps because you are passionate about it. This is b-

Actually, just listen to this man. He is a person like me, apparently, and the Queen put him in charge of this issue. That makes three of us, so there!

Verdict: Could use less.

Iconic

One of the features of slang is the way in which it adopts new meanings for old words. Radical, cool, tubular, sick, and so on, which all diverge from their formal use, save perhaps in the case of those totally Tubular Bells.

Iconic belongs to a small family of words like epic and legendary which have, in their formal senses, powerful and rich meanings, but which have been appropriated to mean something less, rather than something different. For epic and legendary, this means a tendency to appear in places where good or nice might actually work better, not least because if one starts with epic as a form of praise, to where can we then go? Biblical? Saga-esque?

These are small fry, however, compared to iconic. People are wont to refer to something eye-catching as iconic, because icons are things people see. This misses the point: an icon is a physical representation of something ancient or eternally true, like God or saints. Beyoncé might, at a stretch, be said to be iconic because other people try to mimic her or capture something of what makes her good, but when she appears on the red carpet in a dress which has never been seen before, the dress cannot be iconic because it is brand new and we have only just seen it. If the dress is still capturing our imaginations as a society decades from now (cripes, what a depressing thought), we might be able to refer to it as iconic without having to slap a great big caveat all over our brains.

Verdict: Only use uniconically.

Unputdownable

English is extraordinary in that it has words for almost every occasion, including some occasions which will never happen. Take juvenescent which means becoming younger: nothing does that, and yet here we are!

Sometimes an individual’s urge to coin a new word to express something rewards and enriches society at large: scientist, to elbow, metrosexual, extreme adjectivity. These are all treasures of our linguistic heritage invented by solitary writers whose genius allowed us to express something hitherto inexpressible yes they are shut up.

Unputdownable, however, is a hideous construction whose meaning, although clear, is subordinated to its purpose: to cut off thought and squeeze as many words into a book review as possible. We do not say of music unstoplistenable or of food unstopmasticatable or of a computer game unsaveandquittomainmenuable. This is because we are adults and, as a society, have learned over thousands of years how to express our thoughts in full sentences using the enthralling and immersive words at our disposal. It seems particularly awful that book reviewers who, presumably, want to impress upon people a love of reading, want to use a turn of phrase so singularly unliterarable grotesque.

Verdict: Put it down, step away.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.