Saturday, June 20, 2009

Word Nazi

I'm not one of those linguistic Fascists who insists on using words that have Anglo-Saxon roots, as opposed to Greek, Latin, or French ones. But I do have some hangups about words.

It irritates me when I hear the word "often" pronounced with an audible t. I was brought up saying the word as though it rhymed with "soften," which every anglophone knows has a silent t. On the other hand, I rather like the comparative form "oftener," though it goes against the "by the book" grammatical rule that insists that "more often" is more correct. I reckon if "softener" is a word, why not "oftener"?

The other day I was reading a book written in gorgeous prose, but some of the sentences had a few too many -ly adverbs for their own good. One of them was "perpetually." I thought the sentence would have flowed better, had the author chosen "always" instead.

Somewhere in the same book I discovered a sentence where the words "motionless" and "dimensionless" appeared. The poetry of the sentence could have been improved by changing the first word to "still," just as "always" would have improved on "perpetually." The shorter, more common word has a wider range of connotation. It opens up in the imagination like a delicate flower. "Motionless," in contrast, is a frigid, clinical word that triggers only one very literal image in the mind. It kills the sentence. On the other hand, "dimensionless" is fine. It's an unusual enough word, covering such a strange concept, that its keen specificity doesn't drag on the imaginative impact of the sentence.

Then take the word "presently." I hate that word. Except in the context of, say, 19th- or early 20th-century British prose, where it falls naturally out of characters' mouths, it sounds conscious and affected. Also, seven out of ten Americans who use it, use it badly. The word means "soon," people. It does not mean "at this present time." So unless you're deliberately aiming for a tone of old-fashioned formality, you're better off using "soon."

As I have observed in at least one book review on this blog, it also irritates me to find the word "betimes" misused. There is practically no reason to use this word today, except to prepare people to understand when they come across it in Dickens. It means "bright and early." But nowadays, people seem to confuse it with "sometimes," especially when they are trying to imitate an archaic style of speaking.

To me this is almost as irritating as when people bandy about "thee" and "thou," and verb forms ending in -eth and -est, without much regard for number or case. I'll forgo a snarky analysis of how these words ought to be used, in favor of simply saying: Before using these archaic forms, you had better observe how they go together by reading literature that uses them idiomatically.

Finally, I've been dying to take a poke at the name of a canned beverage I frequently enjoy. Seemingly hailing from the same realm of compulsively hedged language as the classic "imitation American flavor pasturized process cheese food," let's all give a warm welcome to "Tropicana Fruit Punch Juice Drink," a "fruit punch flavored juice beverage from concentrate with other natural flavors." Wow! Do you think the language has been tortured enough? Far be it from thee to let fall the simple words "fruit punch" or "juice," without enough qualifying language to satisfy a bevy of lawyers!

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