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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 3, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

"Dead" Words

I was going to finish out my reviews of Hallmark Christmas movies this week, but an emergency came up, which I must deal with first, in order to save you all from a pernicious new fad in bad teaching.

A friend recently forwarded to me an article from The Wall Street Journal about Leilan Shelton, a middle-school teacher in Costa Mesa, California, who is trying to improve student writing by getting them to stop using words she considers "vague" and "dull."

Before I subject her absurd ideas to the ridicule they deserve, I think it's worth pointing out a few facts about what bad writing is.

I consider myself an expert on this, because I worked for years as a copy editor and rewriter for various publishers of books and magazines, and I have had to repair truly execrable writing to make it at least serviceable, and, preferably, interesting and effective.

I also teach upper division students at a good university. And I can promise you that few indeed are the competent writers who emerge from the American public school system.

The problem is not that their writing is not "lively," or that they're using dull words. The problem is that a shocking number of people graduate from high school without the ability to write anything that makes sense.

(And to prove that this is a problem in the schools, let me point out that I have never taught a home-schooled student who could not write clearly. Parents do a better job of noticing when their children can't think and therefore can't write.)

Bad writing is writing that says nothing, or that says something in such a confused and unclear manner that nothing is communicated to the reader.

I don't mind "dull" words, or even cliches, when the students actually understand what they're saying, and write language that allows me to understand them.

Here's a fact that Leilen Shelton seems to miss entirely. Long before any aspect of style is worth discussing, students must know how to write language that says what they mean. And in order to do that, they have to have an idea that they understand well enough to explain clearly.

If you improve the style of a student who can't think of an idea and support it with examples and evidence, then what have you accomplished? Nothing at all. As William Goldman phrased it in his best novel, Boys and Girls Together, when a character was talking about a badly written but well-performed play: "Wash garbage, it's still garbage."

That's what Leilen Shelton is trying to do: Wash garbage.

Students need to be using logic rather than worrying about word choice. They need to be researching and analyzing their subject matter rather than trying to find odd and weirdly inappropriate words.

By the time they get to school, all students are fluent in their native language. The teacher may disapprove of generational jargon -- "awesome," "LOL," "OMG," "like" -- but that only means the teacher is not of their generation. There is nothing intrinsically bad about any of those terms. In the right place, they can liven up an otherwise dull essay.

Those terms would not exist if they did not have a valid use in the language. Words that are truly useless -- or, as Shelton has taught her poor victims students to call them, "dead words," cease to exist in speech. Quick, do you know how to use yclept, bibliopole, fain, bodkin, contemn, buss, fizgig, or gudgeon in a sentence? Do you know anybody who would understand you if you did?

Her students would not know any words that are truly dead, unless their reading was deep and esoteric indeed.

Shelton is selling a manual called "Banish Boring Words" (of which she has sold nearly 80,000 copies, which means the poison is spreading). What are the words she wants to get rid of?

Let me start with the most offensive and stupidly wrong example: said. Shelton is of the opinion that "'said' doesn't have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list."

Oh, I bet she does. Here's what she doesn't know. In the offices of publishing companies, editors frequently compile lists of those words, too -- the words that writers use in place of "said." They post them on bulletin boards so that other editors can get a good laugh at such appallingly bad writing.

Only in the romance genre is it considered good writing to use substitutes for said -- which is one of the reasons that writing in that genre tends to be bad.

The use of substitutes for said is called "said-bookism," and it is universally despised.

Why isn't it bad to repeat said all the time?

Let me give you another example -- the word that is the most vague and overused word in the English language:


Why is Shelton attacking poor said, which only shows up in passages of dialogue or quotation, when the is used so much more often, and means so much less. In fact, the means nothing at all. It serves a semantic function by helping shape our understanding of other words, but by itself it means next to nothing.

The trouble with the is that there is no adequate substitute. Sometimes that or those or which can serve a similar purpose, but those words stick out.

Let me point out three sentences from the third paragraph of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech. Let me begin by saying the obvious: This is a brilliant speech, superbly written. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Now read these three sentences:

"But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

The is used seven times in 57 words. The makes up more than one-tenth of the words in these sentences. (Compared to the, the word said is downright rare, even in the most dialogue-heavy book.) Yet Shelton seems oblivious to this appalling reliance on a single dull, vague, nearly meaningless word.

But there's no point in complaining, because you can't get rid of the without making the language sound nothing like English. Many languages have no equivalent of the, which is why native speakers of those languages sound so alien when they haven't yet realized how often the is required in English.

Imagine a Russian saying King's words: "But one hundred years later, Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, life of Negro is still sadly crippled by manacles of segregation and chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

Now let me point out what should be obvious, had Shelton been adequately educated in the rudiments of language: Said is a word that, just like the, carries little more than positional meaning. When you come upon said, all you really need to understand is that the person attached to said is the speaker of the words or ideas linked to it.

We could as easily use a two-headed arrow to accomplish the same job. "Why must we always have cabbage," Mark. Mother "Get a job and pay for a Happy Meal, if you don't like what we serve in this fine establishment." Mark "I'm not sure which irritates you most: flavor or me." "Oh, you, by far," Mother cheerfully. "Flavor never complains about my children."

Now let's see this same silly dialogue with Shelton's substitute words inserted in place of said. "Why must we always have cabbage," barked Mark. Mother demanded, "Get a job and pay for a Happy Meal, if you don't like what we serve in this fine establishment." Mark howled, "I'm not sure which irritates you most: flavor or me." "Oh, you, by far," cackled Mother. "Flavor never complains about my children."

Sure, these were not really the appropriate substitutes for said. But the fact is, there are no appropriate substitutes for said. Every word you use in place of said is worse than said, because it will call attention to itself and interrupt the flow of the writing. (The only exceptions are asked and answered, because they carry a tad more positional information than said without sacrificing invisibility.)

But the stupid effort to find replacements for said has, at least, the virtue of being widespread. Shelton did not invent it. She just perpetuates the stupidity.

Her innovations reach sublimity when you see other words she wants her students to get rid of as "dead": Good, bad, nice, a lot, fun, thing, and stuff.

Think about this for even a moment, and you recognize how awful the writing of students who eschew these words must be. These words are commonly used because they're useful. If we didn't need them, they wouldn't exist. And when we need a new word, we often press new meanings onto these old words.

Besides, how can you say anything or nothing or everything in English without using thing? That's how essential thing is to English. Banning it is so mind-bogglingly stupid that it's a miracle the students didn't laugh her out of the classroom as soon as she proposed it.

You'll notice that I'm repeating the word stupid way too much, but that's because all the substitutes I can think of are so much crueller and I don't want to punish Shelton too much for the fact that she got a college degree entitling her to teach English in middle school without even a rudimentary understanding of the English language.

And the madness continues. Here are a few more of her banned words: Walk. Run. Happy. Talk. Go. See.

Suppose you need to alert a colleague to the fact that you have information or a question. It's so simple to say, "We need to talk." But Shelton would have us say, "We need to converse." "We need to discuss something." "We need to interface." "We need to exchange information." "We need to vocalize some thoughts together."

There is no substitute for talk that is better than talk. When you mean "talk," the best word for it is talk.

Ditto with walk. What would you say, "amble"? "I'm going to amble to the store." But wait. Does amble really convey "walk"? Walk carries the extra meaning of "not drive"; does amble convey that as clearly as walk?

Where will these kids find replacement words? Why, in the handbook of bad writing: the thesaurus. Here's what they find under walk at thesaurus.com: hike, jaunt, parade, step, stretch, stroll, tour, march, pace, perambulate, peregrinate, promenade, ramble, saunter, stride, traipse, tramp, tread, schlepp.

I selected only the verbs in the list (or changed nouns to verbs), so that they could replace the verb walk. Now try every one of them in these sentences: I'm going to ________ to the store. Please ________ upstairs and bring down my phone. When the car broke down I had to _________ all the way home.

Not one of these words is a suitable replacement for walk, because walk has no synonyms. There are words with similar meaning, but no words that are one-for-one replacements.

That's the reason why a thesaurus is a lie from the start: There are no true synonyms in English, no words that actually mean the same thing as other words. (And please, I beg you: Find a word that could replace the supposedly dead word thing in the phrase "same thing" in the preceding sentence.)

Even in phrases like "a book" and "one book," one is not a synonym of a, because a expresses an unconcern with which book is meant, while one stresses the fact that no more than one book is required.

Every substitute word carries its own freight of meaning, implication, and tone, and when students are assigned to simply pick a substitute for a banned word, how likely are they to choose words whose meanings they actually know? Not likely at all, because the better they know the substitute word, the more dissatisfied with it as a substitute they will be.

So they are most likely to choose words they do not actually know well enough to use at all.

One of Shelton's students, Megan Riley, recalls that they were required to chant the "dead" words. Then Megan offered this obituary: "I think it's very sad they have passed. I grew up with them."

That's exactly right. Those "dead" words are very much alive, precisely because they are at the root of language -- they are words children learn very early on, words that the most fluent speakers use most commonly because they do essential jobs efficiently and well.

Another student tells of "having dozens of terms 'drilled into my head as words that you are 100% not allowed to use.'"

So what happens to these students from now on? Instead of concentrating on the meaning they want to convey in their writing, and using whatever language naturally comes to mind, they are trained to constantly censor themselves, stopping in alarm when one of these useful basic words comes up and searching for what does not exist: an adequate substitute.

Shelton's students will be far, far worse writers to precisely the degree that they practice what she's preaching.

I know the work of many excellent writers and even more merely competent ones, and I can assure you, not one of them would tolerate the banning of any word on Shelton's list. No, not even awesome.

Any student who really believes, "Rather than saying, 'This soup was good,' you can say something like, 'The soup was delectable,' which really enhances it ... It gives it sort of this extra push," is dead as a writer.

Delectable enhances nothing. Unless used ironically, it makes the writer seem like a pretentious donkey. Delectable has its uses, but none of them is as a substitute for the simple, clear good.

Oh, by the way, the Wall Street Journal article begins like this: "English teachers were once satisfied if they could prevent their pupils from splitting infinitives." Let me be fair and point out that the rule against splitting infinitives is also false and stupid.

One of the glories of English is that we have a two-word infinitive, so it can be split. In this essay of mine, I split several infinitives -- and was perfectly correct to do so. Unsplitting them would have made the writing worse. For instance: "They are trained to constantly censor themselves."

Here are two unsplit versions: "They are trained constantly to censor themselves." Oops; now it's ambiguous as to whether it is the training or the censorship that is constant.

"They are trained to censor themselves constantly." But now constantly is annoyingly distant from censor. And if you move it closer, the result isn't even English: "They are trained to censor constantly themselves." Ick. Shudder.

Writing teachers have been teaching false "rules" to their students for centuries. A depressing number of genuinely anti-grammatical expressions come from the efforts of such ignorant teachers over the years: "Between you and I," the bad corrections are far worse than the "problem" they were meant to correct.

And yet such ignorant teachers resist all attempts to refute them with the myriad proofs that they are wrong, wrong, wrong: When students "note that those words frequently have wormed their way into Great Literature," one such cretinous teacher replies, "'When you get to the level of Charles Dickens, you can do with words whatever you want.'"

This is false on every level. First, Charles Dickens was once despised as a "bad" writer because he pandered to popular tastes. He only became a "good" writer when those who loved his stories became prominent critics and professors and changed the "rules" of good writing to include Dickens.

Second, Dickens wrote to the people who bought newspapers in order to read the chapters serialized in them. These were "ordinary" readers, not hoity-toity intellectuals. His first goal was absolute clarity -- if his readers could not understand him, his career was over. So he used common words from the start, and only departed from them when he needed to convey a meaning that required a rarer word.

So Dickens couldn't "do with words whatever" he wanted. In order to communicate with other people, he had to use the words they were already using, and the more common those words, the better they served his purposes. If wanted whatever writers we do could we, a then language positional English like quickly unintelligible become would. You can only become a good writer by using words that other people know. And they know best the words that are spoken, like, a lot.

Third, you don't get to "the level of Charles Dickens" by following any of the idiotic rules of these meddlesome, ignorant teachers. By following their precepts, you guarantee that publishers will laugh your manuscripts out of the office, and if you self-publish, most readers will give up in disgust because your word choices are constantly interfering with the forward movement of your language.

We are all fluent in our native tongue. The written language has conventions slightly different from the spoken language, but language lives and grows only in the spoken words; writing must eventually follow speech, or it becomes irrelevant.

Written Latin was frozen in place while the "Latin"-speaking people of Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, and even Rome altered their spoken language until written Latin no longer bore even the slightest resemblance to the locally spoken version. Finally people had to admit that French, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian were now separate languages. Latin is still Latin -- but nobody speaks it as their native tongue. As far as language is concerned, that's what "dead" means.

And the version of written English being taught by these ignorant teachers is pre-killed, because nobody speaks the way they are teaching their students to write, and nobody ever will.

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