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April 02, 2006

Strunk and Light IV: Using it just to use it

... continued from before, dude ...

IV. Using it just to use it.
to persist: yes, I know, there’s no other verb that does the exact same job. There are circumstances in which the only word available is “to persist”. However, that doesn’t explain why the word is popping up so persistently these days. I don’t think humanity, or humanity’s ills, have somehow gotten more persistent in the past decade or so. This is a perfect example of the word that justifies its own use. You see other people using it. It strikes you as a cool word. The next time you have the opportunity to use it—i.e., the next time persistence looms on the horizon—you create a sentence especially to contain the verb “persist”. Of course, once the sentence, or paragraph, is down on paper, it’s difficult to revise out, because there’s no other word that perfectly fits in that space. You’d have to rewrite the sentence, or the paragraph, to express the thought a different way. Sound hard? Do it anyway.
spatter vs. splatter: I’m checking in here in favor of “splatter”, which now connotes a rather low-art feel (as in “splatter films”), and is currently being underused or outright ignored. “Spatter” on the other hand, is enjoying a sort of high-art poetic vogue, like “belly” or “tiny” or “deft”. In fact “spatter” is becoming so popular, that I’m actually seeing people spattering things in their stories just so they get to use the word “spatter” (i.e. not to advance the story). Do we really need that much spilling and throwing and stabbing and painting? Plus, “splatter” is a cool word, probably originating in the combination of “splash” and “spatter”. Get with it.
to trace: Another word that is affecting the actions of characters. Before the vogue for tracing, characters would just look longingly at photographs. Now, in both books and movies, they put their dirty, smudgy fingers directly on the photos and trace the outlines of the figures therein depicted. This is somehow produces more pathos than looking, which is, by the way, what photographs are for. Photographs don’t actually reward tracing, a fact never mentioned in the cliché-artist’s prose. Plus, artist characters don’t “draw”, “outline” or even “limn” naked bodies anymore. They “trace” them, which in my day was considered cheating. And following someone’s path, either literally or metaphorically? Tracing. Must we trace paths? Can’t we “tail”, “trail”, “chase”, “pursue” or “follow” things anymore?
pithy: no, no, I believe you that this word actually has a meaning. Only … well, the problem is, although I’ve looked it up over and over again, the meaning of this word won’t stick in my head. Why? Because it’s one of those words that doesn’t have a context. No one ever writes that something is pithy and then follows it up with a description of the pithiness. People just say “it’s pithy” and leave it at that. If the single word is the only thing in the piece of writing that says what it says, well then you’re not doing your job as a writer. Another word for “resonance” (in language, anyway) is “redundancy”, strange as it may sound.
eschatological: no, people really aren’t using this word too much at all. It’s just that writing about “pithy” above made me think of the other word whose meaning I simply cannot make stick in my head. What am I trying to say? I think I’m trying to say that either you put these words into sentences that make their meaning clear in context, or you don’t use them. Kapeesh?

Next time: stuff that's just gross...


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seelight, i am so glad that you're taxonomizing your language peeves! and i agree with much of what you say, even if it means that i've now re-written this little comment some eight times or howevermany already.

but i've got to respond to your post on pithy, which was not so, um, pithy. pithy is a great word, because it specifically means "a maximum of effect from a minimum of words."

OED offers the following, non-pithy definition of "pithy:" "Full of substance or significance; solid, substantial; esp. of speech or writing: Containing much matter in few words; expressing briefly the pith or substance of a thing; condensed and forcible in expression or style; sententious; terse. (Now the prevailing sense.)" (they offer this as the 3d def., even though it's the prevailing sense, because OED has an acknowledged historical emphasis, and doesn't simply present the most common first.)

in short (in an attempt to be pithy), the context for this word is: words! or, more precisely, wordiness! or, not to put too fine a point on it, the avoidance of wordiness. in other words, to be pithy is to be able to avoid wordiness to derive a maximum of utility from what you say or write.

um, c'mon . . . say it with me: "pithy!"

just 'cos you hear dunderheads mouthing it incorrectly doesn't mean its overused . . . it means it's used incorrectly, and all too often. (cf. "begging the question," or "heisenberg principle," which are almost universally misused) your readers and fans (not to mention your old college chums) rely on you to correct these things!

dennis, i'm neither complaining about incorrect, nor excessive correct usage of "pithy". i'm complaining about people calling (or describing something in writing as) "pithy", and leaving it at that. being pithy means that you, using as few words as possible, convey substantial meaning. it doesn't simply mean that you use as few words as possible.


1. Be pithy. is not pithy because it conveys only the meaning of the one word, plus the grammatical context of a command. It doesn't even tell you if the speaker/writer knows what "pithy" means, which means that it's not really conveying information.
2. Be pithy, not glib or vague. is pithier, because it conveys the meaning of the one word, and then renders the meaning of the word clearer, through negative definition. The opposing words set up both a context (in this world it is possible to be glib instead of pithy, vague instead of pithy), and a possible emotional resonance (have you ever been frustrated by glibness or vagueness?)

now, i'm not claiming to be pithy, so the above examples aren't great, but i hope it gets across what i'm saying.

i see what you mean. yes, the one that would appear to be less pithy is actually moreso.

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