The Write Stuff
Here’s Looking at You, Kid
By Alan Crawford,
An encouraging result of the shift from print journalism to the “everyone’s a journalist” world of social media is that our writing has become less formal and pompous. No one today tries to capture “the mood in Washington,” the way Arthur Krock or Stewart Alsop might, because there is no one prevailing mood hovering over the nation’s capital and never has been; we know better, and that’s good.
Thirty years ago, a newspaper columnist might write, “One has to wonder” whether something might occur. Today, a blogger is more likely to say, “You’ve got to ask yourself” if it’s going to happen. The first seems stilted and artificial. The second sounds more like the way we actually talk. You can overdo it, but as long as you’re aware of the possibility, you can check yourself.
Second-person pronouns — you, your, yours — have made a comeback, and a new study appearing in the journal Psychological Science suggests one reason these pronouns carry such power — “you” especially. The researchers looked at the lyrics of popular songs and, using convoluted calculations I can’t begin to understand, found that those in which “you” figures prominently are more likely to sell than those that don’t.
The general assumption has been that when, say, Whitney Houston sang, “I will always love you,” the listener on some weird level imagined she was talking about them. But the researchers discovered that this isn’t the case at all. Almost no one thought Whitney would always love them. It never worked that way, though the easy familiarity of “you” might have suggested it.
What the researchers discovered was that the use of “you” encouraged listeners “to imagine the narrative in relation to someone in their own life,” meaning someone they thought they would always love. The pronoun is, in that sense, expansive and inclusive; it enlarges the circle, drawing others into the picture. It communicates or, as the cliché would have it, “reaches out.”
But “one,” by definition, is exclusive. It restricts to an individual case, and if you want to get your meaning across to more than one person, or an imagined audience, the last thing you would want to do is to kick anybody out. You know what I mean.
Annoying Word of the Month: Proximity. A Brazilian official tested positive for the coronavirus after being “in close proximity to the president,” the Associated Press reported on March 12. What do people like about that phrase, “in close proximity”?
My guess is they think that it sounds more precise than simply “near” or “close to,” but it doesn’t. I can think of other words or phrases that mean the same thing but are actually more direct and specific — and that use maybe one syllable or two rather than six.
It’s a way for reporters to suggest they are imparting more information than is the case. A favorite, along these lines, is a photo cutline or caption that says someone in the picture “is unidentified.” That just means they don’t know who it is. Saying, “we have no idea who that is and didn’t bother to find out” would be confessing to laziness as well as ignorance, and no one wants to do that, especially reporters whose job is to find things out. I wish “in close proximity” would self-quarantine and shelter in place, or both.
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