It’s the sensational atomic flyswatter!Published 8:32am Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Column: Pothole Prairie
Let’s continue reading entries from “The Careful Writer” by Theodore M. Bernstein, like we did last week. Or is it, as we did last week?
Atomic flyswatters: In slang, especially American slang, there is a tendency to go to extremes. At the extreme of understatement a Cadillac may be referred to as a heap; at the extreme of overstatement a girl may be referred to as a queen. The understatements far outnumbers the overstatements, which seems to be a feature of slang. In casual speech, apart from slang, there is a tendency to overstatement, and unfortunately, the tendency carries over to writing — even to the writing of authors who, except for special reasons, wouldn’t permit the intrusion of slang or any other low expressions into serious writing. Thus: “He has certainly been ignorant of a lot of wrongdoing within his department, at a frightful cost to the consumer public”; “The French are not terribly pleased with the Americans”; “The reception visitors from the United States have been accorded in Moscow has been nothing short of fabulous.” The tendency is to use powerful words to convey quite moderate meanings, to unleash atomic weapons to kill flies — and that rhetorical figure itself comes close to doing the same thing.
In speech, where this kind of misuse is more common than in writing, we use the strongest words of the language with abandon. A play is terrific (no idea of terror) or it is dreadful (no idea of dread), a restaurant is fantastic (no idea of unreality) or it is horrible (no idea of horror). The trouble with this practice is that the “bad” meanings of the words tend to drive out the “good” meanings (See Bernstein’s second law). It’s enough to make strong words weak.
The dilution has gone so far that many of the powerful words have now become mere intensitives, so that they appear in such contradictory contexts as “awfully good” and “terribly nice.” It is doubtful whether the misusers of these words have ever paused to think what the words mean. The suggestion here is that they do so. To raise an alarm, the following list, surely incomplete, of words often used as atomic flyswatters is offered for examination: adorable, awful, colossal, disgusting, divine, dreadful, fantastic, fearful, frightful, great, horrible, sensational, stunning, terrible, terrific, weird.
Bernstein’s second law: (This entry is too long to print here. Know that the first law is that if you drop an item, such as a cuff link, it will bounce or roll to the most inaccessible spot. Here is his short explanation of the second law.) “Bad words tend to drive out good ones, and when they do, the good ones never appreciate in value, sometimes maintain their value, but most often lose in value, whereas the bad words may remain bad or get better.” (Bernstein does note with appreciation, however, that this is how language changes. Bad words become goods words.)
Bi-: Bimonthly means every two months, and nothing else. Biweekly means every two weeks, and sometimes something else: twice a week. Biannual means twice a year. Biennial means every two years. Without question, man’s communication with his fellow man would be improved if semi- were used to mean half and bi- were reserved to mean two.
Include: A sports article said that seven baseball players (now of fond memory) would return to New York from Pittsburgh, then continued: “The seven included Antonelli, Williams, Maglie, McCall, Grissom, Wilhelm and Castleman.” There are seven names in that list. The word include, however, usually suggests that the component items are not being mentioned in their entirety. If all are being mentioned, it would be better to write “The seven were …”; or, if there is an irresistible urge for a fancy word, to use comprised.
Toward(s): In the United States, the favored form is toward; in Britain, towards.
Used to: The verb use — in the sense of accustomed or normally — sometimes takes a final “d” and sometimes not. In the regular past tense the word is used, as in “He used to love scrapple.” With the auxiliary did, however, the word is use, as in “He did not use to like scrapple.” The phonetic similarity of the two forms occasionally produces this kind of error: “This moving and haunting little film has an uncommon personal quality, a concentration upon the fate of the individual such as we didn’t used to get in Soviet films.” This is just as illogical as “He didn’t went to school.” It should be added, however, that employing use in this sense, though common in conversation, lacks grace in writing.
I think we can add awesome, extreme and spectacular to the list under atomic flyswatters.
So was it like or as? This is perhaps the biggest fight between spoken and written English. Bernstein gives a long answer that reads as though he wishes the rules of English would change. He fails to give a precise answer. It is good to have the AP Stylebook, too. It says: “Use like as a preposition to compare nouns and pronouns. It requires an object: Jim blocks like a pro. The conjunction as is the correct word to introduce clause: Jim blocks the linebacker as he should.”
In other words, “as” would be correct in “as we did last week.” “Like” would have been correct had I written “like last week.”
OK, one more week of “The Careful Writer.”
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column will appear again next Tuesday.