10 Words You Should NOT Delete from Your Vocabulary

Don’t believe the hype. There’s nothing wrong with these words.

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Based on a little Twitter rant of mine…

and the fact that I felt like I’ve seen this article online before, I decided to go looking for around for advice about which Words You Should Not Use Ever™. It turns out, the Time article I was ranting about was actually written by someone at Muse. My social media slaying of that article unfortunately didn’t keep Time from tweeting it out again less than a month later. I know, I was as shocked as you:

Some things never die.

That Muse article which appeared on Time has also appeared on the websites of Forbes, USA Today, Federalist Papers, Business Insider, and Mashable. Talk about mileage. I was able to find 12 other articles slinging the same snake oil. I don’t have the time or space to go over all of the words on each of the listicles. Let’s just go over the ones that appear on three or more lists instead. They are: actually, but, honestly, just, literally, maybe, never, really, should and very. You can see a spreadsheet of the entire word lists here (I am not including one list which turned up in my search because it’s actually honest advice on how to be a better person, rather than a language shaming trash piece like the other listicles). Here we go!

Actually

Appears on 3 lists: Inc.com, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com

Dictionary.com calls their banned words “crutch words”, invoking the idea that a sentence isn’t strong enough to stand on its own without them. But then removing them would mean… I don’t understand the metaphor. They say about crutch words that “crutch words slip into sentences in order to give the speaker more time to think or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement.” What is curious about this is that they list a meaning for each of the crutch words that they list. Maybe these are just the meanings that they don’t like? Besides, emphasizing a statement is a perfectly fine and natural thing for some words to do. Not every word has to bring some definition of content along with it. If it did, we wouldn’t be able to use words like if and not.

For actually, Dictionary.com says “Actually is the perfect example of a crutch word. It is meant to signify something that exists in reality, but it is more often used as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, “I actually have no idea”).” Ok, so what’s wrong here? We’re not allowed to add punch to our statements? Why not? And wouldn’t that make our language blander? I don’t think the bloggers at Dictionary.com have thought this one through. (The lexicographers over there are off the hook, though. They know what’s up and they have nothing to do with this clickbait nonsense.)

Inc.com’s problem with actually is that it will put distance between sales people and their customers, especially in phrases like Actually, you can do this under “Settings.” The idea is that the actually implies the customer was wrong and that’s a no-no in bidness. So it should be replaced by something like sure thing. So their problem isn’t with the word actually, it’s with the sentence adverb actually. But Inc.com hasn’t picked up on the fact that actually might have more than one meaning and more than one use in a sentence, so they’ve banned it from all sentences everywhere. Somebody should put them in touch with Dictionary.com.

Diana Urban says only that actually doesn’t “add information” and that it should be removed if the sentence makes sense without it. Ok, let’s pretend that actually doesn’t add information to a sentence (even though it totally does). Why stop with removing actually? Articles (the and a) don’t add information to a sentence and many languages do not have articles. So should we remove them? No, because there are other things that words besides pass along pieces of lexical information. Words can allow speakers to relate their feelings about the information. Like, I actually want to punch my screen when I read these banned words lists.

But

3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10; Also appears on the Forbes 7 as “I’m no expert, but”
Inc.com says this about but:

As for “but,” look at the difference removing it makes, she* points out.

I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.

It’s a subtle fix that makes your message more positive.

* The advice on actually and but in the Inc.com article actually comes from this post by Carolyn Kopprasch.

Hold the phone. You didn’t just remove the word but, you changed it to an apostrophe. Am I supposed to always do this? [Song lyrics, poems]

Over on Selfgrowth.com, it’s all about removing obstacles to achieve your dream:

When used as a conjunction, “but” negates whatever statement that precedes it. “I want to study law, but it will take a lot of hard work.” Your mind does not focus on your desire to become a lawyer or judge; it only sees the hard work you will need to perform. Replace “but” with “and.”

You know what? I’m going to get behind this one. Do that hard work and become a lawyer. You got this! (The Forbes 10 list says pretty much the same thing as this)

Now, back to the grind! The Forbes 7 list says this:

Women often preface their ideas with qualifiers such as, “I’m not sure what you think, but…”

Did you think we were going to get out of this without criticizing women? Ha! Such wishful thinking…

Honestly

4 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Business Insider, Dictionary.com
Honestly? Honestly.

Dictionary.com says that this word “is used to assert authority or express incredulity, as in, ‘Honestly, I have no idea why he said that.’” However, it very rarely adds honesty to a statement.” What is the problem here? Why can’t we use a word to assert authority or express incredulity? Honestly, Dictionary.com, don’t you know how language works? You’re a goddamn dictionary, fer crissakes!

Muse, the list that started this whole ball rolling, says that “the minute you tell your audience this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not”. What? No. That’s not how things work. I used honestly in the last paragraph. Does that mean that all of the other words in this post are dishonest? What kind of black magic linguistics is this? Honestly is one powerful word if it can make the rest of the words sound dishonest. Maybe you shouldn’t use honestly until you’ve received a license and the proper training.

The Forbes 6 list and the Business Insider info-tainment video both parrot the Muse advice. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t really care. Moving on!

Just

6 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Inc.com, Diana Urban, Forbes 7, Dictionary.com
Six lists! This word is on six lists! Way to go, just!

The Forbes 6 list goes hard on just:

Just. This seemingly simple word is often used but rarely needed. It also packs a big punch to detract from your credibility and confidence and negates from the importance of your message. Instead of sending an email that begins with “Just wanted to check in…” say “I’m checking in on X, Y and Z.” The adjustment is small, but there is a big difference in the resulting impression you leave.

How often is “often”? Don’t ask because Forbes don’t know. They just know it’s too often. But apparently using this little tiny word can make you seem less credible (for… reasons?), less confident (because… Cobra Kai, show no weakness!), and less important. That’s a tall order for a four-letter adverb.

Dictionary.com also claims that just is too common and (oddly) that overusing just makes paying attention more “effortful” for listeners. I don’t know how they come to that conclusion. They say that just is used “to signify a simple action”, so to me it would seem useful. If I introduce what I’m saying with just, it means that what I’m saying is simple. If I don’t, then you should pay more attention. If you ask me, this use of just makes language better.

Inc.com gets its knickers in a bunch over just. They say:

No matter the context, this one smacks of negativity. Consider phrases you might hear and how someone might interpret them.

“Just a minute.” Your priorities are somewhere other than helping me.

“Just do XYZ.” You think I’m having a hard time figuring this out.

“I’m just an intern.” You think your power or influence is limited, in which case it certainly is.

Blogger, speaker, and consultant Matt Monge takes special issue with the latter example. “You’re not just your position. You’re an integral part of your organization,” he writes. “You’re an individual with goals, dreams, abilities, and ideas. You can be a motivated, empowered, positive, valuable member of the team if you just decide to put forth the effort and work it takes to be those things. (bolding mine)

Again we have Inc.com outsourcing their culpability here. I notice that Mr. Monge’s qualifications do not include linguist or editor. Interesting. Is that why he uses the word just while telling people not to use the word just?! Huh, IS IT? Sometimes I wish these people would reread the brain farts that they smear across their Word docs. What are the chances that I’m going to find Matt Monge using the word just in his blog, his speech and his consultations? I’ll tell you: about 100 million percent certain.

Diana Urban goes easy on just, which is good because she uses just after her section advising people not to use just. Confused yet?

The Forbes 7 list warns that saying “Sorry, I just wanted to check in” is code for “Sorry for taking up your time”. Yep, that’s exactly what it is. Nothing wrong with that. It’s called pragmatics. You should learn about it, Forbes, before prognosticating on it. The Forbes 7 list also says that removing all of the justs from your emails and texts will make your statements sound “much stronger and straightforward”. In other words, you will sound like an asshole who has no concept of subtlety. Congratulations, you are become David Brent.

Literally

3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
The Muse 15 list gives us the old “literally means actually, it can’t mean figuratively” mumbo jumbo. They even come right out and say that people usually mean figuratively when they write literally, thereby contradicting their own argument because if someone uses a word and you know what that word means THEN IT’S NOT THE WRONG WORD.

From Dictionary.com (WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER!):

This adverb should be used to describe an action that occurs in a strict sense. Often, however, it is used inversely to emphasize a hyperbolic or figurative statement: “I literally ran 300 miles today.” Literally is one of the most famously used crutch words in English

The phrase I literally ran 300 miles today looks weird to me. Would anyone actually say that, i.e. use the figurative literally with an exact numeral after it? I think the people at Dictionary.com just made that sentence up and it shows they don’t know how to use the figurative literally. I mean, why didn’t they just check THEIR OWN GODDAMN DICTIONARY (their files, as it were)?

There are only 20 hits for “PRONOUN literally ran” in the 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English. None of them include the figurative use of literally; they are all literal literally. So, no, Dictionary.com doesn’t know what it’s talking about. (Side note: I wonder what the ratio of figurative literally to literal literally is in the BYU corpora. Would be fun to check out.)

Diana Urban says that literally doesn’t add information to a sentence, once again completely missing the point of the pragmatic uses of hyperbolic literally.

Maybe

3 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Business Insider
Muse 15 thinks that maybe makes you sound “uninformed” and “unsure”. Business Insider says the exact same thing. But isn’t that the whole goddamned point? They say that you should write an informed piece, but sometimes that just ain’t possible. Maybe our universe is a tiny speck inside another universe. Maybe there are 9 dimensions. Maybe the people who write these lists didn’t do their research.

Selfgrowth.com takes the personal development angle and says that maybe should be replaced with I will or I will not because these words are more positive and they will lead to you emitting feelings of confidence and resolve. That’s a definite maybe.

Never

5 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10, Business Insider
All of the lists argue that never (and by extension always) are discouraging because they do not allow for possibilities. The Muse 15 list has this to say about never (and always):

Absolutes lock the writer into a position, sound conceited and close-minded, and often open the door to criticism regarding inaccuracies. Always is rarely true. Unless you’re giving written commands or instruction, find another word.

I’m sorry to tell you, but never using never is not going to save you from criticism regarding inaccuracies (hint, hint: your language thinkpieces are inaccurate and they suck). Just like how you are sometimes unsure of something (maybe), sometimes you’re totes sure of it. Don’t be afraid to use always and never. Remember: Goonies never say die.

Really

6 lists: Muse 15, The Balance, Forbes 10, Business Insider, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
We have a winner, folks! Really tops the charts by appearing on six lists! Really well done, really. Hats off.

We also see the Balance’s list for the first time in this article. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Their advice sucks as much as the rest of the lists:

In a business sense, the word “really” is a very casual expression that attempts to place extra emphasis and importance on a particular outcome, without really quantifying what exactly that extra emphasis is.

That advice is making go cross eyed. Since when do we have to quantify emphasis? And what does that even mean – do you want, like, numbers? Should I use weights – three pounds of emphasis? Or length – a 39-and-a-half-foot emphasis.

Forbes 10 (quoting someone else) says that really is a “poor attempt to instill candor and truthfulness that makes clients and coworkers question whether you’re really telling the truth.” Get the hell out. Just go. This makes it sound like there’s some conspiracy of people judging others who say the word really. Or that your coworkers are incapable of questioning people who use the word really around them. It’s nonsense. I think the people who made these lists are the only ones judging your usage of really and it’s good to remember that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Business Insider, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com all promote the idea that really is useless. Dictionary.com’s advice on really: It’s not that bad, but you still shouldn’t use it anyway. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Really and very are bittersweet adverbs in English; on the one hand, they provide a lexical boost to the description at hand—“That was a really entertaining show,” “The talk was very interesting.” Using these adverbs helps the listener understand that the show or talk provided more-than-average engagement for the speaker.

The problem is that, like fantastic and great, really and very are terms that chain speakers to unremarkable language. To eliminate the really/very crutch and enliven your speech, select one punchy or creative adjective instead: breathtaking, provocative, knee-smacking, charitable.

I don’t understand this advice. Surely not every show can be breathtaking or provocative or whatever punchy adjective. Some shows are just really interesting, right? So why can’t we describe them that way? Why do I have to do so much work coming up with some rare adjective? Will it make my language more remarkable or will it be more work for my listener/reader to follow along? There’s a reason that really and interesting are so common – they do what’s needed and no one is asking for more. We save the words like knee-smacking for things that are actually knee-smacking (just kidding, no one use knee-smacking unironically).

Should

3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, The Balance, Inc.com
I have to admit, I had no idea why this word would be on these lists. But check out the downward spiral that will happen to you if you use the word should:

“‘I should be [doing something more]’ leads to ‘Man, I lack discipline’ which leads to ‘What’s wrong with me?’ which leads to ‘Maybe I don’t have what it takes … why do I even bother … I should just quit now …’” says psychologist and master violinist Dr. Noa Kageyama. “And pretty soon we’re sitting on the couch watching reruns of The Office and eating a six-pack of Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches.” (from Inc.com)

Yikes! That’s fucking scary (except for watching reruns of The Office, that show was great). Who knew should is the crystal meth of language? And what the heck is a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich? Are they like really bad? Are they what… what losers eat? What losers who say the word should eat? *shudder*.

Very

3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com</span>
Oh my god. This is the part of the Muse 15 article that advised using woebegone instead of very. Here’s the pic, so you know it happened:

Muse 15 very description

So now we’re not allowed to qualify adjectives anymore? Ugh. Listen, I’m going to say this again for the people at the back: Sometimes you don’t need to be specific. Sometimes you’re not ecstatic, you’re just very happy. And the fact that these kinds of articles keep getting churned out doesn’t make me melancholy or depressed – it makes me very sad. Sure, be specific. But don’t be so specific that you sound like a robot.

-zzkkt- She’s 6’3” and it’s 13 degrees below freezing -zzkkt-

Oh yeah, if you were wondering whether Muse practices what they preach, they don’t. Scroll down that article a bit and you’ll be presented with a popup that says “Answer a few (very) short questions…” BUT HOW SHORT ARE THEY? Y U NO be MOAR specific?!

Muse 15 very

We covered Dictionary.com’s bungling of very in the section on really above. Diana Urban says something about it, but who cares?

We’re done here

If you hate these words or hate people for using these words, just stop it. If you use these words, just keep doing it. If you’re an editor and you see too many of these words in someone’s article, then do what you do and take a few out.

If you are a competent speaker, then you know how these words are used – where they belong, where they don’t, where you need them, what they mean, all that jazz. So don’t take the “advice” from these listicles. Hating on people for their use of language is an old game and its siren song is so strong that people will literally tell you to stop using some of the most common words in the English language. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about and they have nothing better to do.

Hackneyed language hacks

Medium has an article called “5 language hacks to instantly become a better copywriter”. It’s a rehash of all the tired “advice” that I’ve heard before about copywriting. But let’s go through it and see why articles like this one are usually such hot messes. Screenshots and quotes come from the Medium piece.

What the holy hell is going on here? Words are barriers? Because we can’t communicate telepathically? And how come that comma after reader isn’t a barrier?

Set a course for… MAXIMUM ACCURACY!

“Strike the word ‘get’ from your vocabulary.” lol. Got milk?

“The word ‘get’ means absolutely nothing by itself.” Ok. The dictionary entry for get is PAGES long. It literally means a boatload of things. It means all the things.

Apparently, “You understand the idea” is better than “You get the idea”. Understand it?

“So when you’re tempted to write ‘get’… **CUE FORESHADOWING MUSIC**

2. Avoid the word “very”

[blah blah blah]

The word ‘very’ is also vague.

The word very is intentionally vague, ya dinkus. Case in point, your bonkers example:

o_O…

(Also, the second example sentence – the “better” one – has a passive in it. **MORE FORESHADOWING**)

3. When in doubt, use contractions

[blahbedy blah] The more friction there is in your sentence, the more difficult it is to mentally read, the less likely is a person to want to continue reading.

Friction is a totally legit word to describe reading and writing. And this sentence is totally frictionless, especially the part that says “the less likely is a person to want”. No friction there whatsoever. Feel it slide.

It’s all about the flow, bro. Also, writing and speaking = one and the same. Judge one how you would judge the other.

Did you think I was going to read them out loud?

“nr.” is not how English abbreviates the word number. Quit breaking my flow!

Dun dun DUN. Now is the moment that was foretold! Of course this “advice” is on here. Of course it is. And how do they define “passive voice”? With a definition from Google. Because it’s not like there are dictionaries or grammar books ANYWHERE AT ALL.

In layman’s terms, [passive voice is] when the action is more important than the subject of the sentence.

No, it is not. But good try!

Ok, they correctly identified passive sentences. Credit where credit’s due. This is the first bar to clear when whining about the passive. Did they copy/paste these sentences from somewhere?

1. Your sentences do not show that the active is more convincing. I don’t need to be convinced that an author wrote a book. Spend more than half a second on coming up with examples ffs.

2. Your active sentences have fewer words because you used fewer words. Don’t hang that on the passive. Also, what are “fewers” words?

3. The passive sentences here are just as clear about who is responsible as the active ones. In fact, the second sentence is entirely unclear – unless “research” is responsible.

4. Y U no avoid passive sentences in this article?

 

Advice gem #5 is called “Improvise with punctuation, bolds and italics”. Yes, go ahead and do that. It will seem totally natural. Like. The. Kids. These… Days?

Wait. Placing periods between words isn’t bad for the flow of reading, but placing spaces between words that can be contracted is bad for the flow of reading? Wtf?

Those aren’t hyphens, Mr. Bond.

And the word you want is emphasize. Remove the d.

So very is verboten but really is right on?

If it wasn’t already clear, this article on Medium is nothing more than an info-tisment (adver-tainment? adver-mation?). It’s by a company trying to sell themselves by appealing to copywriters’ insecurities. That’s why they can get away with not knowing what they’re talking about and providing scant, vague and contradictory advice about copywriting. Don’t buy it.

Book Review: Between You & Me by Mary Norris

Mary Norris’s book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015, Norton) is part autobiography, part style guide. Norris has been an editor at The New Yorker magazine for many years and her voice can be heard through the text, which makes parts of this book an enjoyment to read, especially when she tells stories about her life. She says in the intro that her book is “for all of you who want to feel better about your grammar” (p. 14), which is an unfortunate dedication since the book goes off the rails when Norris discusses grammar and linguistics. In these sections, Norris doesn’t just make herself look bad, but she also ropes in the rest of the editorial staff at The New Yorker.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (2015, Norton)

Early on, Norris discusses the importance of dictionaries to editing. She also, however, walks right into a mine field when she discusses her and The New Yorker’s preference for a dictionary published in the 1930s over nearly all others:

If we cannot find something in the Little Red Web [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 2003], our next resort is Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged), Second Edition, which we call Web II. First published in 1934, it was the Great American Dictionary and is still an object of desire: 3,194 pages long, with leisurely definitions and detailed illustrations. It was supplanted in 1961 by Webster’s Third, whose editors, led by Philip Gove, caused a huge ruckus in the dictionary world by including commonly used words without warning people about which ones would betray their vulgar origins. (p. 18)

Norris is selling Gove and the other editors of Merriam-Webster’s short here. Gove actually wrote that “We must see to it that a mid-twentieth-century dictionary gives evidence of having been written by editors who lived in the twentieth century” (quote from The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, p. 205) and what Gove did (besides dropping sick burns) was help systematize the way that dictionaries qualified words for their “vulgar” natures. Gove also saw to it that the quotes used to illustrate the meanings of words were neither archaic nor unnatural, i.e. contemporary quotes rather than contrived sentences written by the dictionary makers. But Gove’s actions caused a lot of uptight social commentators to get their knickers in a bunch, as Norris briefly explains:

On the publication of this dictionary, which we call Web 3, a seismic shift occurred between prescriptivists (who tell you what to do) and descriptivists (who describe what people say, without judging it). In March of 1962, The New Yorker, a bastion of prescriptivism, published an essay by Dwight MacDonald [who was not a linguist, nor a language scholar – JM] that attacked the dictionary and its linguistic principles: ‘The objection is not to recording the facts of actual usage. It is to failing to give the information that would enable the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt.’ (p. 18)

It is no more surprising that Norris sticks by MacDonald’s essay than it is that MacDonald went to The New Yorker to voice his complaint. But romanticizing the fact that Norris and her fellow editors use a dictionary from the 1930s (Webster’s Second) over more modern ones doesn’t look prescriptivist, it looks downright foolish. Norris drives the point home:

Since the great dictionary war of the early sixties, there has been an institutional distrust of Web 3. It’s good for some scientific terms, we say, patronizingly. Its look is a lot cleaner than that of Web II. Lexicology aside, it is just not as beautiful. I would not haul a Web 3 home. You can even tell by the way it is abbreviated in our offices that it is less distinguished: Webster’s Second gets the Roman numeral, as if it were royalty, but Webster’s Third must make do with a plain old Arabic numeral. (p. 19)

This is nonsense. The editors at The New Yorker are prioritizing a dictionary from 1934 because it “enables the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt”. Think about that for a second. Who in their right mind wants their writing to sound like it was published in 1934? The New Yorker is not a “bastion of prescriptivism”, it is an ancient ruin of unfounded notions about language.

MacDonald can maybe be excused for the incorrect ideas in his article. They were, after all, popular at the time. But Norris doesn’t get off so easy. She wrote her book in the 2010s, well after the ideas in MacDonald and W2 were shown to be incorrect. Think about what she is doing here. She using a 50-year-old article with incorrect ideas about language to defend her use of an 80-year-old dictionary. If your doctor recommended that you start smoking Camels because a commercial in the 1950s said they activate your T-zone, you would find another doctor.

Later in the book, Norris visits the offices of Merriam-Webster and says “These people are having far too much fun to be lexicographers” (p. 29). This is perhaps true, and she might even believe it, but I doubt she likes any of the advice that the MW editors give online or in their videos.

Bad Grammar

Every chapter in Norris’s book starts with a personal story and moves into a topic of English grammar or style. In Chapter 2, titled “That witch!”, Norris discusses relative clauses. She gives some OK advice about how to distinguish whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive, but then makes some major mistakes on what to do after that:

If the phrase or clause introduced by a relative pronoun – “that” or “which” – is essential to the meaning of the sentence, “that” is preferred, and it is not separated from its antecedent by a comma. (p. 40)

I suppose Norris means that that is preferred in The New Yorker, but it sounds like she means that is preferred across the English language, which simply isn’t true. Anyone who has spent any time hanging out with the English language would know this. Perhaps she means that that is preferred by people (such as editors at The New Yorker?) who wish they could dictate which relative pronoun should be used in all cases across the English language. Norris then gives us a half-baked explanation of what’s going with that and which in relative clauses:

If people are nervous, they sometimes use “which” when “that” would do. Politicians often say “which” instead of “that”, to sound important. A writer may say “which” instead of “that” – it’s no big deal. It would be much worse to say “that” instead of “which.” Apparently the British use “which” more and do not see anything wrong with it. Americans have agreed to use “that” when the clause is restrictive and to use “which,” set off with commas, when the clause is nonrestrictive. It works pretty well. (p. 41)

What? No. There is so much wrong with this paragraph. First, what the hell does Norris mean by the first two sentences? Is she a professional on spoken English now? The third sentence gives it away – writers don’t “say” things, they write things. But Norris doesn’t realize that she has blurred the line between spoken and written language so much that she’s erased it. This paragraph means that an admittedly prescriptivist editor of written language – who prefers a dictionary from 1934 – can’t tell the obvious difference between spoken and written English and that we are supposed to take for granted her claims about ALL spoken English, based on… something. Another thing that is wrong with this paragraph is that it is demonstrably wrong that Americans have “agreed to use ‘that’” with restrictive relative clauses. This was dictated by copy editors in the beginning of the 20th century! This hope/wish/desire to separate which and that comes from Fowler (1926), who wrote “The two kinds of relative clauses, to one of which that and the other to which which is appropriate, are the defining [restrictive] and the non-defining [non-restrictive]; and if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is practice either of most or of the best writers.” (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., 2015, edited by J. Butterfield, p. 809) Even Fowler gave up on this that/which nonsense. You would think Norris would recognize this because of her preference for early 20th century English reference works. No one cares about this that/which distinction anymore, if they ever did. It wasn’t just the British who saw nothing wrong with using which in nonrestrictive relative clauses. Americans have also never cared about this when they were speaking naturally*.

Norris also has a chapter on pronouns, in which she wastes four pages (pp. 60-63) blabbering about pronouns before we get to the point of the chapter, i.e. the (supposed) problem of English’s (supposed) lack of a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. The chapter ends with a heartfelt and well written personal story about Norris having to switch the pronouns she used for a family member who transitioned. Norris quite deftly shows how personal our pronouns can be and this part of the chapter is definitely worth reading. What comes before it, however, are a bunch of pronoun howlers.

One of the stranger ones is when Norris claims that “There is only one documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech, and that is “yo,” which ‘spontaneously appeared in Baltimore city schools in the early-to-mid 2000s.’ (p. 66) What? Does Norris actually believe this? The research cited on yo is from Stotko and Troyer, but they do not claim that yo is the only documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech (Stotko, Elaine M. and Margaret Troyer. 2007. “A New gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A preliminary study”. American Speech 82(3): 262–279. https://dx.doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2007-012).

Then Norris drops the bomb:

I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of “their” when you mean “his or her” is just wrong. (p. 69)

Ugh, where to start? Literally right before this sentence, Norris said that having singular you and plural you is fine. But then she says that singular they is not because… reasons? Norris actually tries to claim that the epicene he would be invisible if we didn’t “make such a fuss” about it. Guess what? It isn’t and we do. Does Norris really think that the epicene he is only visible because people complain about it? She has it backwards. The epicene he is complained about because it is so damn visible. And are we really to believe that he would be invisible to Norris? She devoted an entire chapter in her book to pronouns. Also, singular they isn’t colloquial (although I’m willing to bet that the editors of The New Yorker have a different definition of the term “colloquial” – one from the 1930s perhaps). It has been used across all types of texts and registers and first appeared 800 years ago. (Wait, is it possible that singular they SPINGS FROM ACTUAL SPEECH?! Omg you guys!!1!) Basically, if you have a problem with singular they, maybe it’s time to get over it. Or, if you’re going to complain about singular they, maybe you shouldn’t use it in your writing. That’s right, Norris uses singular they in this book:

A notice from the editor, William Shawn, went up on the bulletin board, saying that anyone whose work was not “essential” could go home. Nobody wanted to think they were not essential. (p. 11)

smh

The discussion of pronoun usage gets more convoluted after this. On the very next page (p. 70), after telling us that a writer was wrong for not using the epicene he, Norris says that a The New Yorker staff writer was correct in using singular they. So what the hell is going on here? I don’t know and I’m starting to not care.

Chapter 4 – “Between you and me”

This might be the most confusing chapter in terms of grammar. Norris writes:

The most important verb is the verb “to be” in all its glory: am, are, is, were, will be, has been. (p. 84)

So will be and has been are part of the verb BE? Uhh… how? And why isn’t being in that list, or (by Norris’ logic) have been? No one knows.

The rest of this chapter goes from bad to worse. Immediately after this quote, Norris discusses nouns, rather than nouns phrases, even though she uses noun phrases rather than single-word nouns (such as copy editor and my plumber). In a later admission that there are several copulative verbs, Norris says that “It is because these verbs are copulative and not merely transitive that we say something ‘tastes good’ (an adjective), not ‘well’ (an adverb): the verb is throwing the meaning back onto the noun”. What does this mean? Norris is also incorrect when she says that “nouns are modified by adjectives, not adverbs”. Noun phrases are modified by other noun phrases (a no-frills airline, sign language) as well as adverb phrases (the then President, a through road). Those examples from Downing & Locke (2006: 436), but from The New Yorker we have “Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building…” from a piece called “Empty Wallets” by George Packer in the July 25, 2011 issue, perhaps edited by Norris. But this isn’t even a matter of modification. In Norris’s example (“Something tastes good”), the adjective phrase good does not modify the noun phrase something, but rather functions as a complement in the sentence. Essentially, the subject (which may be a noun phrase or may be something else) requires a complement when a copulative verb is used. And there is no reason that adverb phrases cannot act as complements after copulative verbs (They’re off!, I am through with you, That is quite all right).

In the following paragraph, Norris writes “One might reasonably ask, if we can use the objective for the subjective, as in ‘It’s me again,’ why can’t we use the subjective for the objective?” But again this is confusing and it’s hard to tell whether Norris believes that me is the subject in her example sentence (hint: it’s not, it’s what some grammars call an extraposed subject, but I can see how Norris would be confused – The New Yorker has proven its ineptitude when it comes to describing sentences of this type. See Downing & Locke 2006: 47–48, 261).

In discussing grammar, Norris also tells stories about working at The New Yorker. It’s hard to describe how shocking some of these are, so I’ll let Norris tell it:

Lu Burke once ridiculed a new copy editor who had come from another publication for taking the hyphen out of “pan-fry.” “But it’s in [Webster’s dictionary],” the novice chirped. “What are you even looking in the dictionary for?” Lu said, and I wish there were a way of styling that sentence so that you could see it getting louder and more incredulous toward the end. She spoke it in a crescendo, like Ralph Kramden, on The Honeymooners, saying, “Because I’ve got a BIG MOUTH!” Without the hyphen, “panfry” looks like “pantry.” “Panfree!” Lu guffawed, and said it again. “Panfree!” The copy editor was just following the rules, but Lu said she had no “word sense.” Lu was especially scornful of unnecessary hyphens in adverbs like “feet first” and “head on.” Of course, “head on” is hyphenated as an adjective in front of a noun – “The editors met in a head-on collision” – but in context there is no way of misreading “The editors clashed head on in the hall.” The novice argued that “head on” was ambiguous without the hyphen. Lu was incredulous. “Head on what?” she howled, over and over, as if it were an uproarious punch line. Eventually, that copy editor went back to where she had come from. “It’s as if I tried to become a nun and failed,” she confided. It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens. (p. 116)

Some strange cloistered order? Jesus Christ, working at The New Yorker sounds fucking miserable. “Pan-fry” needs a hyphen because, what, the readers of The New Yorker are so fucking dumb that they would think it means “panfree”? Probably not, but what a great excuse for one of the editors to be a total dick to an employee, huh? Hahaha, good times!

Here is the sentence in question, from a 1977 issue of The New Yorker:

“It’s heartening to see that a restaurant in a national park is going to take the time to pan-fry some chicken,” I told Tom.

Whoa! Good thing that hyphen was there or I would’ve thought this guy was taking time to panfree some chicken and WHAT THE FUCK WHY WOULD I THINK THAT.

Incredibly, the hits keep on coming in the next paragraph:

The writer-editor Veronica Geng once physically restrained me from looking in the dictionary for the word “hairpiece,” because she was afraid that the dictionary would make it two words and that I would follow it blindly. As soon as she left the office, I did look it up, and it was two words, but I respected her word sense and left it alone. (p. 117)

Ok, now respect the word sense of writers who use(d) singular they.

And if you’re wondering why The New Yorker still writes “teen-ager”:

Not everyone at The New Yorker is devoted to the diaeresis [the two little dots that The New Yorker – and only The New Yorker – places over the word cooperate]. Some have wondered why it’s still hanging around. Style does change sometimes. […]

Lu Burke used to pester the style editor Hobie Weekes, who had been at the magazine since 1928, to get rid of the diaeresis. Like Mr. Hyphen, Lu was a modern independent-minded reader, and she didn’t need to have her vowels micromanaged. Once, in the elevator, Weekes seemed to be weakening. He told her he was on the verge of changing that style and would be sending out a memo soon. And then he died.

This was in 1978. No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since. (pp. 123–124)

Kee-rist, I’m surprised they don’t write “base-ball” and “to-morrow” and “bull-shit”.

A chapter about pencil sharpening. Seriously.

Chapter 10 (“Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”) is some sort of dime store pencil porn as Norris describes pencils in such detail that only an actual pencil would find it interesting. I kept thinking that I would rather have pencils in my eyes, but then I came across the best line in the entire book:

David Rees specializes in the artisanal sharpening of No. 2 pencils: for a fee (at first, it was fifteen dollars, but like everything else, the price of sharpening pencils has gone up), he will hand-sharpen your pencil and return it to you (along with the shavings), its point sheathed in vinyl tubing. (p. 182)

Dafuq?

Conclusion

The New Yorker hardly needs help in showing people that it has a very tenuous grasp of English grammar [links to LangLog and Arnold Zwicky]. They demonstrate that in their pages whenever the topic of grammar comes up). Apparently, decades of publishing some of the greatest writers has not helped anyone at the magazine to learn how English grammar works. Unfortunately, Norris’s book does nothing to help The New Yorker’s reputation when it comes to grammar. On top of that, some of the stories she tells about working at The New Yorker are pretty horrifying. If you are able to separate or skip over the discussions of grammar, this book may be enjoyable for you. It’s an easy read, but I couldn’t force myself to like it.

 

Footnotes:

* Not to mention Norris doesn’t even follow her own advice –

p. 15: “It is one of those words which defy the old “i before e except after c” rule”

p. 54: “The piece also had numbers in it – that is, numerals – which I instinctively didn’t touch”

And she quotes A. A. Milne doing it: “If the English language had been properly organized … there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’” (p. 64)

And Henry James: “Poor Catherine was conscious of her freshness; it gave her a feeling about the future which rather added to the weight upon her mind.” (p. 143)

And Mark Twain: “It was what I thought when I stood before ‘The Last Supper’ and heard men apostrophizing wonders and beauties and perfections which had faded out of the picture and gone a hundred years before they were born.” (pp. 147-48)

You could argue that these are all old/dead writers and that no one should write like that anymore, but again, The New Yorker magazine, as well as the author of Between You & Me, prefers to use a dictionary from 193fucking4.

Write as Elmore Leonard Says, Not as Elmore Leonard Does

Speaking of how to write well, Dangerous Minds contributor Paul Gallagher has posted Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Writing Fiction.” The list is from a 2001 New York Times article and it goes like this:

1. Never open a book with the weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I commented that Leonard breaks at least two of these rules in his books. That knowledge came from five minutes worth of what us in the business call “using the internet.” I’m not going to spend more time on this, but I wanted to relay another comment by witzed that had me rolling:

A lot of people don’t know it, but Elmore Leonard is also an architect, and he has some really good rules for that, too.
1) Do not start with the roof.
2) Make sure there is another room on the other side of the door.
3) Carpeting must always face left.
4) No boilers in the elevator!
5) All arbitrary lists must have at least ten items.
6) A bedroom is not a bowling alley.
7) Make up your mind: shoes or no shoes.
8) Think first: Is this supposed to be a bathroom?
9) Pay attention to the stuff everyone can see.

Remember, folks, the best players often make the worst coaches. For more hilarity, check out the contest held by the National Post and CBC Radio. The contest is closed, but you can check the comments.

The Real Reason Short Words Are Best

In the opening of a recent Macmillan Dictionary Blog post, Robert Lane Greene quotes the editor of the Economist’s style guide, who in turn quotes Winston Churchill as saying “Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Greene then goes on to discuss how difficult it is to write clearly. If you think you’ve heard this one before, don’t. Greene’s post is brief, practical, and a touch insightful. He believes that journalists often get a “bad rap” as writers of plain English because of the schedules they are under. I can go along with that.

Greene also says that metaphors are one way writers can improve. He says there are “three ways to use a metaphor to get ideas across, and two of them are bad.” The two bad kinds are tired metaphors and strained metaphors. Greene suggests using the best kind of metaphors, those that are “simple, clear, memorable and quite often short.”

Greene uses the conventional meaning of “metaphor,” of course, since that’s how most people still understand the term. But the updated meaning shows us that phrases like on Wednesday and the sun came out are also metaphors (for those unfamiliar, think about actually putting something on a day in the way we put something on a table). This realization of metaphors lurking all around our language is important because it adds what I think is the most important element of Greene’s (and Churchill’s and the unnamed Economist editor’s) belief that short words are best. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into Conceptual Metaphor Theory or Blending. I’m trying to keep your attention, believe it or not.)

Consider the opening to Greene’s post, which is really the opening to the Economist editorial:

“Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Thus, quoting Winston Churchill, began an editorial in The Economist that consisted entirely of one-syllable words. It went on:
“AND, not for the first time, he was right: short words are best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are.”

Churchill, Greene, and our anonymous editor aren’t the only ones that love short words. You’ll hear language gurus promoting them all over the place. It’s a common idea, but a good one. It goes: Keep it simple, stupid.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that short words are anything but “plain.” The more I think about them, the more I realize that short words are downright complex, especially ones like prepositions. For example, you know what on, of, at, in, etc. mean, but could you define them? It’s pretty tough when you think about it. Fortunately, every language has a way of expressing the notions that prepositions in English express, such as spatial relations. So when you encounter a new language, no matter if it has prepositions or suffixes doing the job of English prepositions, you will be able to understand them. That’s not plain, in my mind. Prepositions do some complicated things.

I don’t think Greene, Churchill or Mr. Editor were talking about prepositions, though. So let’s think about some other short and “plain” words. The English word set, according to Macmillan, has fifteen definitions. Stand has seventeen definitions. Run has nineteen. And that’s not counting the entries for phrases that include these words.

These are not plain words. Short words are not great because they are “to the point,” but because they are to so many points. The fact is, I can do a lot more with set, stand, and run than I can with Australopithecus, midi-chlorians, and Tyrannosaurus rex. That’s because English packs a lot of information into little tiny words.

Or, then again, maybe it doesn’t. Sometimes we’re forced to say yesterday or tomorrow, pretentious or university (two unrelated words), Superman or Professor Xavier. That’s just the way things are.

In his editorial, the Masked Editor uses literature as an example of what can be done with short words – “to be or not to be,” “The year’s at the spring/And day’s at the morn…/The lark’s on the wing;/The snail’s on the thorn.” But he’s using a double-edged sword and he’s not using it well. Sometimes people write thinigs like this:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door–
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”

Or this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Or this:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

So it goes. I guess some folks know what they’re doing. Neither Churchill, nor Greene, nor the artist formerly known as an editor tell us what a short word is. One syllable? Two? Three is stretching it, I guess.

The point is, Greene, Churchill, and the editor who wasn’t there are correct. Everyone should keep it simple (stupid). They should do that all the time. It’s a good rule to follow. But we should realize that in English our “short and simple” words are often only the former, not the latter. I’m not picking on Greene, who I think is a great journalist (seriously, DuckDuckGo his name, read his articles, watch his TED Talks). It’s just that his article made me think of this idea, which has probably been brewing for a while.

By the way, here are the first three sentences of The Gathering Storm, the first book in a series which won Churchill the Nobel Prize in Literature:

After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. This heart’s desire of all the peoples could easily have been gained by steadfastness in righteous convictions, and by reasonable common sense and prudence. The phrase “the war to end war” was on every lip, and measures had been taken to turn it into a reality.

And then there’s the rest of Hamlet’s speech that our friendly neighborhood editor used as an example. Guess what, there’s disagreement over its meaning. So much for short words. Shakespeare does away with them after the first line. To wit:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come…

[Update: Mr. Greene was kind enough to drop by and leave a link to his reply, which you can find here.]