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I Am Desirous of Arriving at That Location

January 28, 2010

…or, in plain talk, I want to go to there.

Most writers have heard that nagging phrase, “Don’t use a ten dollar word where a dime will do.” Personally, I love this advice. I tend to write in a pared down style and not use a lot of flowery descriptive language. But how does one know what a word is worth?

Yesterday, I was nervous about submitting my application to Suite 101, so I pasted my sample articles into wordpress and used the site’s proofread tool. I was surprised to find that wordpress underlined several words in my articles with blue, indicating a style issue. When I moused over the offending words, the following message popped up: Complex usage. This is a  nice succinct way of saying that there were too many ten dollar words in my writing.

But let’s take a look at the words in question. “Maintain” set off alarm bells on wordpress, as did “achieve,” “ensure,” and “formation.” I don’t really think of ANY of these words as being so long and unwieldy that they interfere with reading comprehension (I guess unless the reader is in kindergarten). In addition, wordpress wanted me to change “achieve” to “make” or “do,” neither of which is appropriate (“get” is a different story, but it didn’t make that suggestion). It also wanted me to change “formation” to “form,” which in the context of the sentence I wrote didn’t make any sense.

I know, I know. One should never use a computerized proofreading program and take its advice without a grain of salt. Look at Word. It wants me to change “dye” to “die” about a million times in the article I’m working on about hand-dyed yarn. “You can also die in a microwave,” has a completely different meaning than the one I intended, and is hilarious. Clearly the “you” being addressed in that sentence is a cat, or maybe a hamster, or a person who owns a VERY large microwave. But this experience of using the proofreader did raise some questions for me about what qualifies as “complex usage” and what doesn’t. Do I sound pretentious and overblown when I think I’m being pithy and accessible?

To me, words like “utilize” and “employ” are prime examples of unnecessary ten-dollar words. “Utilize” is always wrong, because “use” will always suffice. Also, I don’t employ soap; I use it. Unless a writer is talking about giving someone a job, I don’t think “employ” is appropriate. In general, my opinion of the “ten-dollar rule” is that it exists so that we don’t end up with sentences like this one, taken from the Urban Dictionary:

“So I told the rather rubicund fellow that I would not forbear his facetious predilection, and that I would extirpate him if he persisted. However I refrained from the notion because I desiderated copulation with his girlfriend.”

This is heavily euphemistic, and the average reader is going to lose at least part of the meaning. Because what’s really going on here is this (also from Urban Dictionary):

“So I told the red-faced bastard that I wasn’t gonna put up with his sarcastic attitude, and I was gonna kill ’em if he didn’t stop. But I decided not to ‘cuz I wanted to bang his girlfriend.”

In other words, the reason why we’re told to avoid ten-dollar words is that they obscure meaning, and make a statement peppered with violence and obscenity sound flowery and pleasant. They take the punch out of our language. “Exsanguinated” sure sounds nicer than “bled to death.” “Sanitation engineers” are respectable folk, whereas “janitors” clean up kids’ puke in the cafeteria. One of my favorite insults in high school was “Your simian visage suggests an ancestry rich in species diversity.” No one who deserved it ever understood what I was saying.

So do “maintain” and “ensure” fit into this category? I don’t really think so. The average reader knows what “maintain” means, and sometimes I don’t want to say “keep” instead. For instance, I don’t “keep” this blog, I maintain it.

Basically, I’ll think twice before I have a computer proofread for me again. Computers might be smarter and faster than me in some ways, but they don’t speak English so good.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2010 5:46 pm

    You are so right. Computers are practically illiterate. And I don’t think they read fiction. I’m a fiction writer and word usage depends a lot on which character is speaking. I’m pretty sure Word can’t tell the difference in the damsel in distress and the evil villain (They have entirely different vocabularies). I still get a kick out of the recommendations, though.

    • January 28, 2010 6:22 pm

      It’s true, computers are pretty bad at discerning context, but at least their failings are occasionally good for a laugh. If I hadn’t taught mine that my name is Greer Hed, it would suggest “gear head” every time.

  2. roz permalink
    January 29, 2010 8:56 am

    it’s nice to hear that real writers get this criticism too. i’ve been composing various different written pieces of “science writing” lately and my advisor (and lab mates that proofread for me) is (are) constantly telling me to stop using my liberal arts fifty-cent words. somehow i’ve found myself particularly fond of the word “functionality,” and this has become an ongoing conversation/joke within the lab.
    i like the idea of getting advice from a program concerning my strange use of odd words, but i fear that my whole composition will end up underlined in some color due to the fact that “glutamatergic” “plasticity” and “isoelectric” are perfectly useable words. does word press make a version that allows for scientific jargon?

    • January 29, 2010 10:14 pm

      No, wordpress does not know those words. It doesn’t even know the word “stovetop.” Or its own site name, judging from the annoying little wavy red lines that appear as I write this.
      btw, anyone who writes is a “real writer.” You count!

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