EVERGREEN: On Becoming a Professional Amateur, #2: Language Abuse

This is the second article in my series on Becoming a Professional Amateur — by which I mean simply that if you’re going to write and you’re a lover of writing (literally an amateur), you might as well be professional about it. Today we take a look at another enemy of professionalism — the abuse of our defenseless language.

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. 

What problems do you see in this pair of sentences? 

I see 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 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 redundant 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 in time and … er, place? Oh, and don’t bother to look up overstanding in a mainstream dictionary—it is found only in the Urban dictionary and is said to imply gaining wisdom or authority about rather than simply gaining knowledge about it. Most readers would assume that the writer meant “understanding”, but wanted something that sounded less ordinary.

Ultimately, he meant to say: To truly 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. 

What does this set of sentences tell the reader about the author? 

This sentence was part of a set paragraphs that contained a number of such sentences. It suggested to me that the writer was trying too hard. He wasn’t secure in his own natural “voice” and was reaching for an academic tone that didn’t come naturally to him in an attempt to sound erudite. 

In the end, he failed to convey the idea because he was overreaching. He was trying to sound eloquent by building phrasings he wasn’t at home with. This drove him to the Thesaurus where he found words that were often just to the left of what he really meant to say. 

How can a writer avoid this? 

Ray Bradbury suggests that writers ought to have separate Writer and Editor “hats.” When you write, put on your Writer hat and simply write … and 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 look for nicer, more eloquent words and phrasings. But make sure you know your tools—words—before you use them. If you look up a word, check the dictionary as well as the thesaurus—make sure you understand how the word is used and what nuances are associated with it. 

And don’t repeat yourself—say it once; say it best. 

Now I will admit that imprecision in language is one of my soapbox issues because it is so often used in the “real” world to intentionally obscure truth or mislead. In fiction prose, it can cause the reader to come a way with only a woolly idea of what you meant. When you are trying to paint vivid word pictures of your characters and their environment, woolly images are your worst enemies. 

Exercise: Reconstruct the sample sentences so that they state the author’s case simply. Whether you retain the “poetic” feel is up to you.

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EVERGREEN: On Becoming a Professional Amateur, #2: Language Abuse — 5 Comments

  1. Bob, we’re watching for the spam, but got sidetracked by the holidays. Word Press catches a good deal of spam — ironically, it held your message as possible spam, but I recognized your name from your earlier comments and so approved it.

    If we keep getting lots of bot garbage, we’ll go for captcha or some such. I’ve been hoping we wouldn’t have to, but there was certainly a lot of spam today.