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March 31, 2006

Strunk and Light II: Just Stop It!

... continued from yesterday ...

II. Just Stop It! Cliché already!
atop: especially “perched atop”. It’s been a good 200 years since anyone really used this in conversation or in anything other than fiction and poetry. It’s archaic and therefore pretentious and doesn’t belong in the written language anymore. Just say “on top of”.
save: for "except for", e.g.: I told no one about the gold, save my best friend. Same as “atop”. Would you ever use this word when speaking or writing an email? I hope not (‘cause if you would, you’d be pretentious.) just use “except for”.
to don and to doff: for “to put on” and "to take off" as in I donned my parka, I doffed my hat. See the two above entries, you pretentious bad writer you. You don’t don shit. Come on!
deft (esp. in criticism): currently the most overused word in America, by my unofficial survey. Here are some alternatives: skillful, sensitive, adroit, adept, subtle, dexterous, precise, neat, clever, able.
to battle disease: why can’t people “fight” or “contest” or “defy” or “stand up to” or “wrestle with” or “contend with” cancer? Why do people always “battle” diseases? It’s not really even a verb.
tiny: especially with reference to one’s children, as in “my tiny daughter” (which I’ve seen five different writers use recently, because apparently a tiny daughter is more moving than a small one). What ever happened to “small”? It’s like reverse Starbucks, where the smallest size is called “tall” so there’s basically nowhere to go but fake-talian. “Tiny” is actually smaller than “small”, and yet people are using “tiny” instead of “small” so there’s no way to get any smaller without using adverbs (really, really tiny.) Try using “small” first, then, when small doesn’t do it, go on down to “miniscule” or “microscopic” or “miniature” or “petite” or “diminutive.” Yeah.
to grace the cover of: a magazine or book. You can just “be on” or “appear on” the cover of something. Your presence on the cover of something isn’t always a grace.
slim volume: especially if it’s poetry. You might not have gotten the memo, but poetry is permitted to appear in “books” now. And when was the last time you saw a book of poetry (that wasn’t an anthology or collection) that wasn’t “slim”? I’ve also seen “slender” gaining ground on the volume front. What ever happened to “thin”, “narrow”, “short”, “brief”, “trim”, “slight” or “lean”? Or just not mentioning the thickness of the book? By the way, there’s also a version of this for unpublished poetry as well: “a slim sheaf of poems”. Why are manuscripts of poetry always “sheafs”? Why can’t they be just, plain “manuscripts”? Or how about “stacks”, “bundles”, “bunches” or “piles”? And why do people always have only “slim” sheafs of their own poetry? Could it be because they’re such cliché-beset poets that they have to throw most of their poems out?
a wealth of: as in a wealth of information. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still relatively evocative, if only because we live in a capitalistic society where wealth is a metaphor for everything not covered by militaristic metaphors. But it’s overused now. Really. Just say “a lot of” or something.

Next time on Strunk and Light: What's the point of saying it?


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I take exception to your comment that "battle" is not a verb. According to Merriam-Webster, it has been used as one since the 14th century.

cool, thanks for the tip! all i found was "to do battle". militaristic metaphors -- maybe they'll always be resonant to humans.

Re alternatives for tiny;
If we're being picky (or grammarian) then the word is spelled "minuscule" not "miniscule."


jack, thanks for the tip! i don't know the history of the spelling of this word, but "miniscule" is now apparently an acceptable alternative to "minuscule", according to a number of dictionaries. they didn't say so, but i got the feeling from the wording that "miniscule" is the upstart spelling. so let's prefer "minuscule" from now on.

and yes, we're being picky ;)

I'm sorry but if the average person doesn't understand atop and save, that says very little for the human race. The beauty of writing and reading and the written word is that you CAN use words that may be dated. You CAN use an obscure reference.
If the person doesn't get the context clues, they'll put it from their mind or they will look it up and learn something. I don't know about you but *I* and many other readers I know *love* to learn new words from what we read.
If everyone catered to the common vernacular then every book would be dull and boring. Everything would sound and look the same. Writing needs to stand out and as writers we are supposed to be writing for our enjoyment as much as we are for the readers' enjoyment. If we write for ourselves, we're writing for the demographic that reads like we do. Is that bad?
I must say that I happen to use the over-used/clichés that you pointed out. If I'm pretentious so be it. I'm not trying to sound smart. It's how I speak. I've got a sizable vocabulary and I like to exercise it.
There are not cliché words...
I do try to avoid cliché *phrases* when I can but you seem to be an idiot.

dominique, there is no name calling on this blog. i've left your comment because i thought all of it except the name calling was worth hearing, if only because it displayed exactly the kind of writer you are, but any more name calling comments from you and you'll get banned.

plus, you didn't read the post very carefully, did you? the average person does understand "atop" and "save", that wasn't my problem with those terms. "archaic" doesn't mean "the average person won't understand it."

you use them in conversation? lemme guess: you also use "abed", "anent", "alack" and "thou" in conversation, right? how about "lo!", "ye", and "methinks"? while you're at it, why don't you call unmarried women "wenches" and have all your men wear codpieces?

it's not about letting your minuscule audience learn new words, it's about using the right words. it's always about using the right words. that's why writing is hard.

In keeping civil...
Yes, I did call you a name. Mearly my opinion of the above post.

Yes, I use 'atop' and 'save'. I use 'methinks' if I'm feeling a bit queer.

Don't think me ill-educated. I know you were intending to insult me. However, I must say, that was a lack-luster attempt. Some words have transitioned from their archaic beginnings to be used in the modern vernacular.

My main point is, that writers use what is effective. It can be 'atop' it can be 'to put on'. The context has barring on word usage.

Have a nice day.

For the most part, I agree in general terms with what you're saying here. Keeping it simple generally makes for better writing. Except for this:

" Try using “small” first, then, when small doesn’t do it, go on down to “miniscule” or “microscopic” or “miniature” or “petite” or “diminutive.” Yeah."

I would say that using 'microscopic' or 'diminutive' instead of small would sound a lot more pretentious and fake than using the word 'tiny'.

I appreciate why you say these words should not be used however I disagree.

When I write, I write what I want to write. The suggestion that it is silly to subject the reader to these words is frankly annoying. If someone doesn't like the word or doesn't understand it they should go look it up. I think they'd rapidly become bored if I continued to use pedestrian language and simplistic english as if they would not be capable of understanding the less well known and more advanced words.

Also, one of the things I enjoy about reading is discovering new (and often 'archaic') words I can add to my vocabulary (and yes I use them in speech and yes everyone understands me).

Just my opinion but I don't think these guidelines will lead to a wider audience accepting my work. So thanks but no thanks.

It's really dumb to say that just 'cause a word isn't used a lot when people talk, it shouldn't be used by writers.

In the above sentence I've written my thought the way I might say it to a friend, and (IMO) I come across like a half-wit. Now I'll write it, much more effectively, using phrasing I would never use aloud:

It's patently absurd to argue that words and expressions should be retired from print simply because people don't use them in speech.

FYI something went wrong here - it credited my post to "Ed" and added a blank post by me underneath...

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