Saturday, March 5, 2011

Better get this historical journey over with

I have only a few remaining entries salvaged from my old Words and Images blog, on topics of grammar, design, and the art of communication. Today I'll share with you one more. Soon my topics will be fresh and not dredged out of some old grad-school files.

December 16, 2007

Don't let the grammar gurus grind you down
or, sometimes bad words work

Last time we spoke, I was questioning Constance Hale's status as linguistic royalty. Now, I have nothing against Ms. Hale. She has taught me many valuable things about language and called my attention to a number of entertaining grammatical gaffes and several pulchritudinous passages that will surely go into the book of "things I like." However, while I'm no princess of prose myself, I think I know enough about English to know (when I've overdone the alliteration and) when it's time to think twice about swallowing advice. (I may be about to overdo the rhyming, too, so let's get right to the examples.)

House, Hale says, is a word that has many alternatives. Still, she commands, "Don't even think about colorless words like abode, dwelling, domicile, or residence." But why not? The house in which I live is your average two-story mix of brick and white vinyl siding. It's shaped like a box; its roof is grey sediment-on-tar-paper shingle; and it sits in the middle of a street of houses that could be its clones. There's nothing distinctive about my house. It certainly does not qualify as a cottage, duplex, dacha, shack, bungalow, A-frame, Tudor, or any of the other options that Hale cites. It's a house, pure and simple. Yet if I were to write a passage much longer than this one about my house, my readers would likely die of boredom if I didn't spice up the description with some other term than "house." I could use "home" once or twice, but after that, I'm going to resort to "dwelling." I'm possibly going to call it a "residence." And I don't think I'm going to end up in grammar hell. Even prosaic synonyms are better than no synonym at all.

Beware of back-formations, says Hale (she's talking about verbs that have arisen from nouns). Some of them meet with her approval - rob from robber, beg from beggar, diagnose from diagnosis - but others do not--enthuse, burgle, and televise. There's no established rule about which verbs to reject and which ones to embrace; you simply have to read Hale's mind. Or else make up your own rules. I, for one, am quite fond of the verb televise. I think it's the perfect word to succinctly convey the concept of sending a television broadcast. I think the "ise" ending lends it an electronic feel, and I think it is just different enough from television to have an identity of its own, yet similar enough that its meaning is immediately obvious. I don't think it's awkward, as Hale does; I think I will use it with abandon.

Access as a verb? wonders Hale with disgust, somewhere in Chapter 9. For whatever reason, our author is extremely averse to this back-formation. Earlier in the book, she suggests that instead of using to access, you try to view. Can you imagine using that substitution in the sentence that she's deriding? "It's the line of credit you _______ simply by writing a check." No, that will never work. The writers are definitely not saying you can view a line of credit - which would make no sense - they are saying you can gain access to it. But if you substitute gain access to in the sentence, then you not only accumulate several unwieldy words, but you also separate verb from its indirect object, in an awkward manner that even Hale, with her opposition to schoolmarms' rules, would not condone. Here (and most places) access is not a bad verb. It is not vague. It gets to the point.

Many words that Hale has shunned are words that I find perfectly acceptable. Context matters, and in the right light, even the dullest word shines. Often, the same thing is true of groups of words—phrases that Hale disfavors have their time and place too. You can bet I'll be sharing my humble opinion on those parts of speech, too, but for now I'm tired of writing and I bit you adieu. (Sorry, I couldn't resist one last rhyme.)


Anonymous said...

An appropriate post for national grammar day but a bit late since that was Friday. Http://