Book Review: Junk English by Ken Smith

Junk English is a garbage book

I read a lot of bad articles and books about language. By “bad,” I mean “writing by people who make nonsense claims about language”. Ken Smith’s book Junk English is one of the worst ones I’ve read. I can’t decide if it’s too preachy or too uninformed. But who cares? It’s just bad. Let’s see why.

As the title shows, Smith makes a metaphor between junk food and what he considers poor language use. In the intro he writes:

Junk English is much more than sloppy grammar. It is a hash of human frailties and cultural license: spurning the language of the educated yet spawning its own pretentious words and phrases, favoring appearance over substance, broadness over precision, and loudness above all else. […] Junk English is the linguistic equivalent of junk food – ingest it long enough and your brain goes soft. (pp. 15-16)

Whoa! Sounds serious. Good thing Ken Smith has no fucking idea what he’s talking about! Maybe that’s from all the junk English he’s been reading. Who knows? More importantly, who cares?

The book is a glossary of arbitrarily named grievances that Smith has against supposed poor language. The interesting thing that Smith does, however, is say that all of the examples of junk English in his book were “taken from life: newspaper and magazine articles; radio and television commentators; advertisements and editorials; minimum-wage workers and millionaire executives; the underclass and the ruling elite.” It’s one thing to write a style guide about mistakes that people make before their writing sees the light of day. These guides are usually written by editors (and there are many good editors out there talking about how to improve your writing). This kind of advice is helpful for writing which will not go through an editor before it is seen.

Blast Books, 2001

Ken Smith’s book is not full of that kind of advice. Instead, it’s a whine fest about Smith’s perceived word crimes. But since he claims that this kind of writing is used many times a day, and that the examples in his book are taken “from life,” we can fact check him. Guess what we’re going to find out?

Verses from the Abstract

Here’s the first piece of junk English that Smith opines about:

Abstract Adjectives. Adjectives are not frivolous. Their job is to describe the noun to which they are attached more fully and definitely: desperate author, crazy decision, unread book. Adjectives that are not definite are detrimental; if they do not make nouns clearer, they do not help others to understand what is being expressed.

Abstract adjectives in vogue are major, positive, quality, and serious, with alternative, feasible, and impact not far behind in popularity. Some of these are actually abstract nouns, and when paired as adjectives with other abstract nouns, e.g., positive impact, serious alternative, they make a great show but say little. (p. 17)

And we’re off to a roaring (and by that I mean “shitty”) start. What should I say about this entry? I guess the first thing is that adjectives do not ONLY describe nouns. They can also be:

  • the heads of noun phrases (The French are at it again.)
  • the complement of a preposition (Soon I will be done with Smith’s book for good.)
  • modifiers of other adjectives (The cover of Smith’s book is bright)
  • stance adjuncts, which can modify an entire clause (Strange, I never suspected him.)

But all of this is lost on Smith’s sloppy and simplistic definition of what an adjective is.

Then there is the strange claim that some of these words are “actually abstract nouns”. Does Smith not realize that some words can be both nouns AND adjectives? The word positive as a noun was first used in 1530 (source: OED), but as an adjective 1385. There is one entry in the OED for serious as a noun from 1440, but it doesn’t seem to have been used this way (to mean “people who are serious”) until at least the middle of the 1600s, more like the early 1700s. As an adjective, serious also dates to 1440 (to the same work), but its use really seems to have started (in writing) in the 1500s. Am I surprised that Smith didn’t check a dictionary before writing his book? No. No, I am not.

Another problem with this entry is that the examples of “good” adjectives that Smith cites are completely made up by him (surprise!). There are no hits for desperate author in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Nothing. Zero. Zip. There’s one hit for it in the News on the Web (NOW) Corpus, which is 6 billion words.

And yet another problem is that Smith’s own advice doesn’t make much sense. For example, he says that “Adjectives that are not definite are detrimental”, but what does that mean? How is the “bad” adjective positive any more or less definite than the “good” adjective unread? Smith doesn’t tell us (because he can’t (because his theory is dumb)).

Artificial language advice

Artificial Vocabulary. Everyone wants to sound smart, and many people seem to think the way to do this is to say ordinary things in extraordinary ways. An evening-news analyst thus speaks of a paradigm instead of a model, and a columnist writes of recontextualization rather than rethinking.

Although pretentiousness is usually offensive, sometimes something about a new word is appealing. When we hear someone say mandate instead of goal, or read in our morning paper of a procedure instead of a task, we may like the way it sounds and remember it, and the next time an opportunity arises to use it, we do. This is the viral nature of language in action.

There is nothing inherently wrong with polysyllabic or unusual words, as long as they are used correctly and appropriately. A word such as interstitial was not invented to impress but to convey a specific meaning, and those who breezily drop it into a sentence when all they mean to say is filler only call attention to their pretentiousness.

Popular artificial vocabulary includes marginalize for weaken, expeditiously for quickly, a plethora of for many, gestalt for whole, persona for image, myopic for shortsighted, holistic for complete, dichotomy for difference, visage for face. Words such as virtually, aggregate, advocate, and documentation have become so commonplace that one no longer even notices how they have usurped almost, gather, urge, and paperwork. (p. 20)

There’s a lot wrong with this gestalt entry. First, I think Smith might have been drunk when he wrote it. The whole thing seems like he just pulled it out his ass (I was going to write “nether regions” but I guess that would’ve been artificial vocabulary). Another problem is that he gives examples of the so-called artificial vocabulary, or the words that are apparently used incorrectly, but then he doesn’t show them in context. I doubt that these words mean the same things as Smith’s alternatives and I highly doubt that they are anywhere near as common(place) as Smith thinks they are. In fact, they are not:

Words NOW corpus GloWbE corpus COCA
myopic 4,839 2,492 423
shortsighted* 14,083 5,029 831
visage 2,347 898 533
face (noun) 669,376 278,926 155,941

* I’m including results for short sighted and short-sighted.

The data in the table above comes from three multi-million-word English corpora. The NOW corpus includes texts from online news sites, the GloWbE corpus has texts from internet sites around the world (especially blogs), and the COCA corpus has texts from five genres – fiction, news, magazine, academic, and spoken language (news shows). What are the chances that Smith came across the word visage outside of a Henry James novel and spit out his cheerios, thinking the word had overtaken face?

According to Google’s Ngram Viewer (which I really don’t recommend using for serious linguistic research, but whatevs), virtually has been on the decline since the 1980s, the uses of aggregate and advocate as verbs are relatively unchanged, and only documentation has seen an uptick.

Of course, all of this is assuming that the pairs of words that Smith presents us with mean the same thing. But they don’t. So you can bet the farm that when someone uses marginalize with Ken Smith, he doesn’t understand what they’re talking about because he’s too busy thinking that they must be pretentious.

So bad it’s bad

Bad connections, similar in awkwardness to obese prepositions and the roundabout way, are the phrases we encounter every day and probably think little of, but they add immeasurably to the bulk and feebleness of modern English. They link one part of a sentence to another, but they do it cumbrously, with a lumbering train of prepositions, passive verbs, and abstract nouns, replacing what otherwise could be expressed in a word or two. [Fucking look who’s talking.]

A bad connection in English, like its counterpart in life, calls attention to itself when all one wants is a clear line from A to B. A few can be trimmed to single words – within [the framework of], is [representative of], [the question as to] whether. Bad connections number into the thousands.

make an appearance with appear with
is capable of being can be
tasked with the job of chosen to
continuing with this example to continue
has become enamored of enjoys

(pp. 23-24)

See how difficult this is? I can do the research about why Smith is wrong here, but that takes serious time. Anyone can barf out Smith’s brand of drivel with the quickness (publishers, call me!).

Smith opines about the imaginary “bulk and feebleness of modern English” and about how bad connections add “immeasurably” to the junk pile of English. C’mon. He claims that bad connections number in the THOUSANDS. Get real. I wonder if he has an entry for hyperbole. This entry shows that Smith hates language. He joins the ranks of people who claim to be protecting the English language, when they really don’t like anything about it or how people use it.

Must we go on? No.

I could go on, but why? I found mistakes on every page of Smith’s book. His screed should have never gotten past an editor. How many of these words predate junk food? Who died in a junk food induced coma and made Ken Smith the arbiter of good English usage?

In the intro, Smith blames marketers and politicians for the supposed poor state of the English language. But of course he blames them. If they didn’t he would be forced to blame Nobel laureates for debasing the language. And that’s why Smith’s metaphor (and others like it) is junk. The highly regarded writers and speakers can’t use junk English and simultaneously be celebrated for their use of English.

Give Smith’s Junk English a hard pass. A steady diet of junk food would literally be better for you.

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