Corporate culture loves semantic shifts, especially when it involves turning nouns into verbs (tasking, mainstreaming, ideate). I've recently noticed a new noun-to-verb creation, one where the speaker treats ask like a noun, as if I can pose an ask or request an ask, or, absurdly, ask what is their ask. This is stupid. We have a perfectly comfortable word that already performs the action in noun form: question. Turning ask into a noun not only confuses anyone used to its standard verb function, but also creates a redundancy, even if ask is a shorter word than question.
A good synonym should perform a similar function, not an equal function. School courses taught some of us to treat synonyms as equals. Swap a common word for an equally uncommon word and you pass that SAT essay. But even words like glad and happy, which may have the same definition, imply different meanings. Happy conveys bright smiles and an extroverted cheerfulness, while glad speaks more softly—people may not smile wildly or walk with a sprightly gait, but, if asked, would confirm they are in a positive mood. Bad synonyms, like ask, add nothing new to our language. Allowing such words to infiltrate common speech and writing creates not only redundancies but also allows for habits that devolve language into a mess of nonsense.
How can I follow such a bold claim with an equally bold introduction? Perhaps a general hook sentence will do me well: schools have often taught children bad habits. Now I follow that excellent hook with some bla-bla, then, finishing the introduction, I present my thesis: primary and secondary schools (in America) teach, to some extent, essay-writing incorrectly. The methods I specifically refer to are the inverse pyramid, the five-paragraph, and the hamburger methods to essay-writing.
The inverse pyramid refers to an introductory form where the first sentence—the hook—is general and catchy, and the last sentence—the thesis or whatever’s left—is the most essay-specific. You might hold this method dear to your heart; I did for a while. Well, it’s shit. It’s utter garbage and an excuse to weaken forceful writing. Why? Because it teaches kids to start with vague nonsense like “throughout history, governments have often spurned people toward mistrust and violence,” when the writer really wants to argue that “British administrative methods in Palestine following the 1920 riots and 1929 Arab revolts in Jerusalem spurned Zionist mistrust and, in turn, the formation of an independent Israel in 1947.” One is petty and boring, the other forceful and direct. The first shows nothing of an argument, a setting, or I dare say a voice. The second gives a setting, a timeframe, and an argument (this being the most important element of all three). Arguments interest people. Continuing the theme from my previous example, if I shout “different nationalities claim rights to the same land,” nobody will care. But if I shout, “Israel belongs to the Palestinians,” quite a few people will care; arguments matter. Start with the thesis, then give us the bla-bla needed in the introductory section. This does not mean tipping the inverse pyramid right-side-up: don’t start specific and end vague. Start specific and elaborate on the topics you wish to discuss. If this seems too difficult to do—years of incorrect education drilled into your head—try this trick: write your introduction as you normally would, then highlight the first sentence and delete it. Don’t bother re-reading it. Chances are it’s meaningless dribble you would be better without.
Good language isn't simply about picking words that work, it's about picking the right words and understanding why they work. Our language, thanks to finance, business, and government jargon, has diluted into a muddle of close-enoughs, complex words of meaningless dribble, bad synonyms, and a general laziness when it comes to the particulars of words. If you're working with math, you simplify—you won't write an integral function where a simpler equation suits better; language is no different.
I can't nitpick every word and mistake and misspelling here—if you want a reference book for most uncertainties, get Garner's Modern English Usage (highly recommended). Let's begin with something basic: The government utilizes taxes to support itself and its people. At this current moment in time I am hungry, but the unfavorable weather that has set in keeps me from running to the deli. Grammatically, those sentences are fine, but stylistically they are agonizing. Utilize is a bad word that we use because use doesn't sound smart enough. At this current moment in time or any of its variants are wordy and weak synonyms for now (most of the time it can be cut out altogether). Unfavorable weather sounds like a student attempting intelligence by dodging the simpler alternative: rain. Here are the revisions: The government uses taxes to support itself and its people. I am hungry, but the rain keeps me from running to the deli.
The art of criticism, true and honest feedback, is dead. Nowadays we cannot criticize; we must give constructive comments. If we dare breach the walls of true criticism, we risk being the asshole who missed the memo about being polite to everyone because everyone is a winner. Before you say amen and move on, though, take a look at these two definitions of the same word:
1. criticize: discuss critically (work, or abs.).
2. criticize: express disapproval of.
Both definitions stem from Oxford dictionaries, the major difference being that the first was published in 1977, the second in 2010. In those years, readers, writers, listeners, and the general public have learned the word to mean something negative, something innately bad. So we invented constructive criticism. According to my dictionary, constructive can also mean inferred, not directly expressed—we are now stuck giving helpful feedback while inferring what we really mean; we cloak the truth because the proud presenter is too soft-skinned to face some honest commentary. Quoting David Foster Wallace, if you're worried that criticize will seem too deprecatory, you can say evaluate, explicate, analyze, judge . . . (taken from the Oxford English Dictionary).
Silence is a beautiful thing, and it works well in film and in music. Silence in music forces suspense upon the listener even for the slightest second. A dissonant chord followed by nothing makes us ache to hear the resolution. But if it's held for that tiniest moment longer the performer has won our attention and interest, resolving finally into the relief of a child holding his breath two seconds beyond his previous record.
The problem with writing is that we can't use silence to convey silence. We can press return a few times, make the eye notice empty space, and hope the reader pauses good and long. But what about the conversation between characters, portrayed so easily in movies, in which silence enhances their discomfort through only visual emotions? Remember Raging Bull, where Jake, ready to take a beating, stares down his opponent? All the sound and music—crowd cheering, jeering; chairs scraping; announcer talking; coach yelling commands, swearing; sweat dripping—cuts out for one cruel moment of anticipation between us and the two fighters. We know what will happen, but for those couple seconds. . . .
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. -Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Those who know me know that the above passage is my favorite to read and recite and imitate. The opening three paragraphs of Lolita often appear on any list of beautiful prose excerpts. But what makes those contenders so beautiful? What makes the above quote better than others? Begin by reading it aloud. Good passages should never go unspoken.
Beautiful passages are not profound—they don't reveal an inner truth about humans or open our eyes; they simply are beautiful to read. "Yes," I said. "Isn't it nice to think so?" is one of those lines, the last of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Within context, it's powerful, but without context, it's beautiful. The beauty which I refer to is the sound of words when placed together, like a musical phrase that begins, grows, and descends to a final cadence. Great writers—not good ones—are those whose writing speaks lyrically. Not every sentence must sound perfect, but a touch of poetry within prose cannot hurt. Writing isn't only slapping words into a story with interesting characters; it's an art and should be treated as such.
For the few who write fiction, allow me some tips that will improve your prose. If people have told you that your fiction stinks, follow these rules and write with good grammar. Even if your story is shit, your prose will be clean.
Vague words: Very, actually, just, really, quite, all speak loud but say little. I have written about these words before, but I'll repeat it again: use concrete descriptions. If I say The hall was very long, how is that different from saying The hall was long? Vague qualifiers attempt detail, but fail to add anything other than pulp, fattening fiction as greasy food fattens the body.
Proper quotations: "Hey, babe." The man said. If you append dialogue with he said, she said, or any variant thereof, it must be part of the same sentence; the dialogue must end with a comma, exclamation point, or question mark. In proper form: "Hey, babe," the man said or "What's up?" she said. Do not use a comma if you do not follow with a speaker attribution: "Hey, babe," the man drove alongside the girl.
Immediate dialogue: Keep dialogue real, curt, and honest. Avoid words such as so and now because they, like vague words, only fatten the useless meat of conversation. "So how are you?" becomes "How are you?" in cleaner writing.
I have a few brief thoughts on punctuation.
The Period. As William Zinsser said, most people don't reach the period soon enough. Don't think of the period as something to tack on at the end of a thought, but rather a tool to kill a winding sentence. There's no rule that dictates the length of a sentence, and while you should strive for variety, shorter is usually better. A long sentence allows for loss of focus, punctuation, and control. Short sentences are good.
The Question Mark. This mark causes few problems. If dialogue ends with a question mark, and the sentence continues, the sentence should follow in lower case: "How are you?" she said. This also holds true for exclamation points.
The Exclamation Point. Writers overuse it. Just look at any advertisement in a magazine, newspaper, or billboard. The exclamation point reveals a gushy author, too excited by his own writing. Instead of forcing excitement at the end of a sentence, rephrase the sentence to emphasize what you want (not the punctuation mark), and let the readers understand the excitement themselves. The same applies to humor—an exclamation point kills the joke, ruins the surprise, and forces itself onto the reader. If the sentence ain't funny, I ain't laughing, no matter how many exclamation points you tack on. Use this mark in these two situations: dialogue that reflects shouting, and exclamations. Alas! That is it.
Modernity has commanded greater awareness to sexist language, especially the he or she pronoun. According to Gender in English Pronouns: Myth and Reality, the he pronoun, for some time, worked as a gender neutral pronoun rather than an indication of masculinity. We see this example often: The student who works hard sees his grades improve, and that's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Both examples are meant to indicate the neutral gender, where mankind replaces all humans. But this type of usage has also led to sexist phrases: a nurse should treat her patients well, and the doctor should write his notes legibly. Why must the nurse be feminine while the doctor masculine? It is this issue with the he, she, his, hers, him, her pronouns that has caused uproar. But how do we fix this?
Some have suggested adding an or into the sentences. May the student complete his or her homework. This clogs our language, and while I'm treading carefully here not to piss anyone off, my standing battle is for clarity and simplicity. And if his or her writing reflects his or her intent to soothe his or her desire to create a gender neutral setting where his or her peers all feel equal, then so be it, but it's sludgy and I'm already lost. Furthermore, if we get picky, why is the he pronoun first? We should have to flip it around each time to make it fair: If his or her writing reflects her or his intent to soothe his or her desire . . . . Swapping pronouns requires greater effort on the reader's part and highlights the author's political intent. The reader stops reading what the author says and instead reads the author's social statement.
Mark Twain once wrote, Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. The best writing uses the best words, and vague words don't cut it. Along with the infamous very, we'll apply the idea of Mark Twain's rule to other words that you should remove or replace.
Very, Quite, Really, Rather: It was very cold outside and we took a very long route, and by the end our noses were very runny. With Mark Twain's tip it reads, It was damn cold outside and we took a damn long route, and by the end our noses were damn runny. The second sentence bleeds with the narrator's voice, but the point is that very is a useless word because it doesn't say anything. If I tell you that it's very cold outside, does that mean it's 70 degrees Fahrenheit and I'm used to desert climates, or that it's 15 degrees and I live in Cleveland? Very detracts more than it gives; it takes more time to say the thought, and it doesn't convey the thought any better. Let's try the sentence again: It was cold outside and we took a long route, and by the end our noses were runny. This sentence is forceful, direct, clean, and takes less time to read. While I like it as is, removing the last very does not result in a good image—perhaps we could rewrite it again: It was cold outside and we took a long route, and by the end our noses dripped endlessly. It's not perfect, but it paints a better image.