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Stubborn Stinkaroos

This election year’s political dialogue has divided the country into the obscenely ultra-rich one percent and the ninety-nine percent who comprise the poor, the shrinking middle class and the, I guess you could say, tastefully affluent.

Compare that with the literary one-percenters, a mulish minority of nitpickers who believe “proper” speaking and writing preserve English’s power and beauty. Most other people by contrast are unapologetically indifferent, and tend to dismiss these sticklers as socially challenged nerds and snobs.

When government policies seem to court and coddle the wealthiest one percent, populists call it a violation and betrayal of American principles.

Not so in the world of letters, where the best writers write for the one-percenters — and why not? Who better to appreciate your writing than those who study and cherish English? Besides, it’s not a class thing. Language aficionados come from all walks of life.

America has always been enamored of its rebels and mavericks — and ambivalent toward those who follow the rules. But rules and laws are the distillation of hard lessons learned by our forebears. Rules wouldn’t exist if this flawed species didn’t need them.

When grammarians say a sentence is “right” or “wrong” they mean it adheres to or defies rules that have endured through the years and proved time and again to be the straightest path to the truth.

The following is a list of bad choices that you see and hear all the time. They’re not major blunders, but they’re misguided in a way that can compromise serious discourse.

Utilize All the way back in the 1940s George Orwell blew the whistle on this pretentious word. Orwell advised writers to get over themselves and go with “use.” But use is so humble, so mundane, whereas utilize really sounds like something. Bureaucrats in particular love to use “utilize.”

Fulsome Many people take fulsome to mean “abundant” or “lavish.” But be wary of writing the likes of “He received a fulsome tribute” or “Please accept my fulsome apology.” The word actually means something darker: “excessive,” “fawning,” even “disgusting.”

Youth There aren’t many synonyms for children. After kids, young people, and youngsters, the pickings get slim, especially if you eschew cutesy-poo. So, rejecting non-options like little ones, tykes, and tots, many writers eventually come around to youth. Trouble is, youth is singular; it’s cheesy to say, “Youth today are facing new challenges.” The obvious fix is “youths today,” even though a lot of scribes think “youths” is clunky.

Cliché It’s a noun, not an adjective. Yet more and more you hear things like, “I know it sounds cliché, but …” There’s an easy remedy: just add “like a”: “I know it sounds like a cliché.” What’s so hard about adding two painless syllables? You’ll make a word nerd’s day.

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

Pop Quiz
Choose the correct or preferred sentence.

1A. We enjoyed a fulsome feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.
1B. We enjoyed a lavish feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.

2A. I don’t know how to use even half of the functions available on my smart phone.
2B. I don’t know how to utilize even half of the functions available on my smart phone.

3A. Sorry, Joe, this may sound cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.
3B. Sorry, Joe, this may sound like a cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.

4A. Do you think today’s youth read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?
4B. Do you think today’s youths read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?

Pop Quiz Answers

1B. We enjoyed a lavish feast at Aunt Rose’s house for Thanksgiving.
2A. I don’t know how to use even half of the functions available on my smart phone.
3B. Sorry, Joe, this may sound like a cliché, but right now two’s company and three’s a crowd.
4B. Do you think today’s youths read less than their counterparts of twenty years ago?

Posted on Saturday, November 24, 2012, at 12:52 pm


8 Comments

8 Responses to “Stubborn Stinkaroos”

  1. Bern says:

    The ‘fulsome/lavish’ choice reminds of a TV ad that used the phrase ‘a place to languish in’ to describe a swanky, relaxing day spa.

    • Jane says:

      Wow, that’s a good one. Thank you. Aren’t you wanting to rush to that day spa to be miserable and neglected? Perhaps they were thinking about linger or luxuriate.

  2. Fred says:

    I wonder if the British have solved the question of youth and consider it a plural collective noun, just as they have with team and crowd.

  3. Donna says:

    Regarding “youth”: You are mistaken. The use of the word in the plural is not considered “clunky.” It accepted usage, similar to usage of the word “people.”

    • Jane says:

      I’ve referred your comment to Tom Stern, author of “Stubborn Stinkaroos,” for response. Tom’s reply is “I understand your point, but as a longtime editor, I’ve seen many writers stumble by using this word to express plurality, e.g., ‘Some youth were standing on the corner.’ That’s clunky!”

  4. Helen says:

    I get stuck on the use of the word “people” or “peoples.” How would you know which one to use?

    • Jane says:

      The word people is often used synonymously with human beings or persons. The word peoples is defined as “a body of persons that are united by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship, that typically have common language, institutions, and beliefs, and that often constitute a politically organized group.” Examples:

      People can be really cruel sometimes.
      The native peoples of Mexico are known as Aztecs or Mayans.

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