Ernie Mazzatenta: Steering clear of loaded language

·4 min read

Writing analysts have been decrying the use of fancy language for as long as I can recall.. . and, most likely, longer. Despite this ongoing opposition, such language remains highly visible in various forms. e.g., in letters, scientific journals, and business reports. Examples follow:

Fancy: The wedding transpired despite the absence of the Best Man.

Preferred: The wedding happened despite the absence of the Best Man.

Fancy: The foregoing is to be ignored when choosing a raincoat.

Preferred: “These myths are to be ignored when choosing a raincoat.

Fancy: “Take cognizance of the fact that this formula is ineffective.

Preferred: “Be sure to recognize that this formula is ineffective.”

Why do so many writers persist in making such unfortunate choices? Dr. H.J. Tichy calls this condition “false elegance. “In her revealing textbook titled “Effective Writing,” she explains why: “The poorly educated who admire false elegance in diction are pathetic. One woman asked, “But who’ll know I’m educated if I use easy words?”

On the basis of her long experience in teaching adults of all ages, Dr. Tichy finds that this same tendency to avoid “easy words” exists at all educational levels. She notes, “Some will write ‘We will endeavor to ascertain’ instead of ‘We will try to find out’ even when all they are investigating is whether their staffs want meat or fish at a dinner for retiring members.”

If you, too, yearn to be seen as learned and therefore lean toward picking fussy words and phrases, recognize the possible pitfalls. Avoid the following:

  • “similar in character to” instead of “like”;

  • “take appropriate measures” instead of “act”;

  • “the only difference being that” instead of “except that”

  • “To summarize the above” instead of “In summary.”

Writing in The Readers Digest, Alison Caporimo and Jeff Bogle, also warn about fussy language. They write, “Even if you can pronounce them, some fancy words may make you sound pompous . . . Others will make you sound like you’re trying too hard to seem smart, which is the exact opposite of what you want. The bottom line: If you’re going to use big words, choose wisely. Your best bets are those that fit the moment and flow with ease, as if you’ve been using them in conversation for years.”

CHOOSING WISELY

Some sources I‘ve come upon offer words that are long and seemingly ‘elegant’ but are still considered in the acceptable category. The online educational center ‘Justlearn,’ for one, offers some in an article titled, “25 Fancy Words that You Can Use in Daily Conversations.” The authors’ argument: “There’s a benefit when you sound fluent like a native speaker.” They offer these definitions and examples:

Repertoire: a person’s list of talents and skills. In formal language, repertoire means “songs and plays a performer can perform without fail.”

Example: “Chris knows how to play the piano, bass, drums, and guitar. His musical repertoire is quite extensive.”

Exacerbate: Worsen a situation that is already bad. Make bad things severe.

Example: “Steven thought opening the window can put out the fire. Unfortunately, this further exacerbated the problem.”

Ostentatious: An act which is done to obviously seek attention.

Example: “Darius likes showing off his wealth. He’ll grab every chance to show his ostentatious life style.”

A RELATED PROBLEM

Hyperbole (Hy-PER-buh-lee) relates to false elegance in that it can provide a false or misleading impression or meaning to readers. However, unlike fussy language , it is not likely to contain esoteric words or those that suggest high intelligence. Instead, hyperbole is meant to convey extreme exaggeration. (Yes, there are levels of exaggeration.) A major difference is that false elegance is usually meant to inform while hyperbole is intended to amuse or amaze.

In “Woe Is I,” writer-editor Patricia T. O’Conner offers this example: “Buster’s claim that his dog could read was hyperbole.”

How Hyperbole Evolved. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary tells us that hyperbole came into English in the 15th century from the Greek words “hyper,”, meaning “over,” and “ballein,” meaning “to throw or cast.” When you use hyperbole, you are “overshooting the target.”

From Wikipedia, we learn the following: “Hyperbole is often used for emphasis or effect. In casual speech, it functions as an intensifier. When you say ‘The bag weighs a ton,’ it simply means that the bag was extremely heavy.

Other examples of hyperbole: “hungry enough to eat a horse,” “so angry you will literally explode,” and “having to walk 40 miles uphill both ways to school every day.”

Some phrases are often so familiar to listeners and readers that they simply bore, rather than emphasize. Therefore, should you wish to use hyperebole to make a point, strive to use words and phrases of your own choosing rather than those that are overused and anticipated.

For hyperebole to be effective, it needs to be obvious, deliberate, and outlandish. Wikipedia cites this example: “Modern tall tales make use of hyperbole to exaggerate the feats and characteristics of their protagonists. For example, the American tall tales about Paul Bunyan rely heavily on hyperbole to establish giant stature and abilities.”

Ernie Mazzatenta, a Hendersonville resident, has been providing Times-News readers with monthly grammar columns since the mid-1990s. He can be reached at joern8@morrisbb.net.

This article originally appeared on Hendersonville Times-News: Ernie Mazzatenta: Steering clear of loaded language