Friday, June 19, 2009

Words fail me.Really. Some thoughts on Problem Words

problem words--words that seem to enhance attributions but which actually muddy a given issue; descriptors intended to delineate but which instead blur; words meant to indicate an emphasis on degree of intensity; words which don't enhance the meaning for which they were used.

Problem words are the literary equivalent of hiring distant relatives; they mean well but ultimately do not understand what is expected of them. To say that John was quite annoying doesn't tell the reader much except that John exhibited qualities that were annoying to some undisclosed person or persons, and that whatever these qualities were, it is impossible to tell to whom or how his behavior caused annoyance; nothing is expressed or implied relative to the accuracy of the statement or its reflection on the reliability of the narrator. It is all right for John to in fact be annoying but the reader should have some relative sense of how this quality sets forth on its mission to annoy the beholder. Does John chew gum loudly? Does John tell racist or sexist jokes? Then there is the matter of the "quite." Does the "quite" mean "somewhat," "very," "considerably," or perhaps "intensely"?

Problem words and habit words dilute dramatic prose by injecting notes of vagueness and repetition into a narrative, venturing close to the verge of trespass into the terrains of cuteness, patronization, and affectation. Hint: You are in the literary equivalent of a police line-up, asked to identify miscreant problem words. Before you, in well-lit display, appear "rather," "very," "many," and "somewhat." You blink in recognition of your complicity in using all of them, then point an accusing finger.

1 comment:

Bryce said...

Excellent reminder. In grade school I used to think that just adding three "very"s would deepen the emotion felt three times.
I occasionally find myself falling back into that trap.
It's, uh, 'very' hard to avoid...