Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Misused Words and Clichés


Donn Taylor

            One of the frustrations of being a fiction or essay writer is the fact that we have only words to communicate with our readers. Novels and essays have no pictures or diagrams to clarify relationships, and gesturing with our hands or counting on our fingers does not help. The poet W.H. Auden went so far as to describe a poem as a "verbal contraption," a machine made out of words, to convey the poet's vision to the reader. Consequently, it behooves us as writers to respect words and their meanings, and to use them both correctly and appropriately. Here I will list some that are frequently misused in CBA writing, and then I will mention some that have become trite through overuse.

            Let's begin with a heavy error (pardon the pun): The past tense of the verb "to lead" is "led," not "lead." This one slips through the proofreading to appear in quite a few novels.

            Another common error is confusion of the two verbs "lie" and "lay." The forms of "lie" are "lie, lay, lain," while the forms of "lay" are "lay, laid, laid." Forms of "lie" never take a direct object: "I will lie down." Forms of "lay" always do: "I will lay the book on the desk." Confusion arises because the past tense of "lie" and the present tense of "lay" appear identical. The solution is to select the correct word in present tense and then convert to the appropriate tense. When all else fails, remember that we can only "lay down" if we are carrying duck feathers.

            One frequently misused (and overused) word is "incredible." Its first meaning describes something that can't be believed. The second describes something so unusual as to be beyond belief. A problem arises when the writer intends the second meaning when the first meaning is also possible. One writer recently wrote that she belonged to "an incredible church." Who would want to belong to a church that can't be believed?

            Certain modifying words are "absolute," meaning that they cannot be modified as to degree. The most misused of these is "unique," which means "one of a kind." Something cannot be "very one-of-a-kind" or "somewhat one-of-a-kind," yet one often hears the expression "very unique" or "somewhat unique." Examples of other absolute words are "equal," "impossible, "eternal," "unanimous," "square," "round" and "perfect." (Yes, the US Constitution speaks of "a more perfect union." When we write a Constitution of the United States, we're entitled to use the same expression. Meanwhile, we must refrain from modifying absolute words.)

            Some irritating usages occur when the writer attempts to sound sophisticated rather than write for plain meanings. One is using the term "escalate" for the more direct "increase." (That is a cliché held over from the intellectuals of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.)

            Next comes the attempt to sound sophisticated by using “exacerbate” when one means simply “make worse.” When we’re tempted to preen our sophistication, we should not rise to the exacer-bait.

            Other words to avoid are those that have become clichéd through being overused. One such offender is “Excuse me.” In using it, the writer sarcastically feigns politeness while pretending to be victimized by a powerful but wrongheaded opposition. So many writers use this crutch that the victims apparently outnumber the oppressors.

            Then there is using the word “sure” to introduce a sentence. (“Sure, some people still think the world is flat, but….”)

              And there’s using the word “Hey!” as an attention-getter. (“Hey! Why do you want to use a cliché?”)

              I suggest the following rules:

  1. There is no excuse for “excuse me.” 
  2. “Sure” should be consigned to the sewer. 
  3. “Hey” should be fed to livestock. (They’ll never notice the difference in spelling.)

              Ultimately, however, attempts to stamp out trite expressions are doomed to failure. One fundamental rule always applies: Whenever a writer can’t find his Pegasus, he’ll hitch old Dobbin to the cliché.

            To summarize: For clarity, writers should use words in their accepted usages. For originality, they should avoid expressions that have become clichéd through overuse.

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  1. I guess someone could be "somewhat one-of-a-kind" just as easily as someone could be "somewhat pregnant."

    Good post, Donn!

  2. I agree and disagree. Another one of those can't be both instances.

    When writing especially contemporary fiction dialog common but grammatically incorrect word usage does need to be taken into account. An example is your mention of the word 'Hey'.

    Here, where I live, as well as other areas of the country 'Hey' is often used as a greeting. "Hey, how's it going?" The word 'going' is also incorrectly used, but people know what you mean when you ask this question.

    Unfortunately, our American culture has little regard for grammar. As authors we need to be careful not to exacerbate this. (Did I use the word correctly? I do include it in my spoken conversation so I hope so.)

    Thanks for the reminder to be examples of correct word usage.

  3. Thanks to Linda and Sophie for the comments. Dialogue is of course an exception because it reflects the culture of the fictional speaker rather than that of the author. A janitor in one of my novels says, "I haven't never used no moth balls in no part of this building." I love emphatic effect of his Chaucerian grammar, but I don't write it in my own voice as an author.

  4. When we write of modifying absolute descriptors, we shouldn't forget the recently popular "one of the only". It is a lazy way for writers--journalists especially--to avoid research. If one can say "one of the only" in place of the correct "one of the few" or "only", one doesn't have to waste time finding out whether the subject of the sentence is indeed unique or is only unusual. It is one of my only pet peeves.

  5. Good comment, David. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Donn, as always, a delight--both you and your words.

  7. Enjoyed this every much, Donn. You're precisely unique!

  8. Those misuses of words are as annoying as the replacement of all words with pictures in the instructions for assembling something you bought.

    This isn’t exactly in the same vein as your examples, but a pet peeve of mine: people who use “badly” when they mean “bad.” “I felt badly for her.” I guess that means that my tactile sense was working badly when I tried to touched her. One can hear it from network news anchors and other public speakers.

    And here’s a help for the “lie”, “lay” problem. The old song was grammatically correct. “Lay that pistol down babe, lay that pistol down.”

    Thank, Donn, for a fun – and informative – post.

  9. Hey, Donn (heh, heh) -- people in my neck of the woods greet each other that way now rather that say Hi. Great post. It reminds me that we all need another pair of eyes on our work. I recently read a book I really liked but instead of cowered, the word used was coward. To err is human. And I loved your duck down reference.

  10. Nice, Donn. You always tell it like it is...

  11. Lie and Lay are always a problem. Thanks for the brief lesson.

  12. Add to the problem the attempt to avoid -ly words, so authors "put a sweet smile" "give a large grin" always "on the face" (where else would these be? A stronger construction is to use the stronger verb "smile" and smile sweetly. Few words, stronger construction.

    I love your work, Donn.