The Write Stuff

Alan Crawford write_stuff
16 Dec, 2020


The Write Stuff

Alan Crawford write_stuff
December 2020

‘Don’t Pontificate,’ He Opined

Impact readers might notice (though I hope they don’t) that people quoted in our stories almost never opine, prognosticate, pontificate, propound, denounce or even enthuse. Mostly, if someone’s words are put between quotation marks, a simple “said” will do.

There’s a reason for that, and it is a matter of not wasting readers’ time or making them stop midsentence to think about the verb being used. A fancy word, unless employed with considerable care, just gets in the way. Common alternatives to “said,” such as “noted,” “explained,” or “commented,” are fine, too; it’s the pretentious ones that cause problems.

Alan Crawford is a published author and journalist who, in his books and articles, has written on the period of the United States’ founding and the American tradition.

I was reminded of this simple truth the other day while reading an amusing review by the great American critic Edmund Wilson. He was writing about The Robe, a novel that was very popular in the 1940s and later made into a movie starring Richard Burton.

A Fabric of Clichés

The title of the review was “‘You Can’t Do This to Me!’ Shrilled Celia.” This biblical swashbuckler, Wilson wrote, was “an almost unrivalled fabric of old clichés, in which one of the only attempts at a literary heightening of effect is the substitution of the simple ‘said’ of other more pretentious verbs — so that the characters are always shrilling, barking, speculating, parrying, wailing, wheedling or grunting whatever they have to say.”

It is not often, admittedly, that public affairs professionals must write dialogue, but there’s a lesson in all this even if they don’t. When students are learning to write, their teachers often instruct them never to use the same word more than once in a paragraph or any other passage.

The result is to send the student scrambling for synonyms or — in the case of the brighter and more ambitious scholars — trying to come up with more highfalutin substitutes. Of course, there’s some value in that exercise. It encourages students to enlarge their vocabularies and to realize their range of choices.

Diminishing Returns

But there’s also a point of diminishing returns. The second-choice word is rarely preferable to the first (of course, it can be), and the substitutions quickly call attention to themselves. In the latter case, they divert readers’ attention from the point being made to the way it is expressed. And the more eye-popping choices stop the unoffending reader altogether, which calls to mind a moth-eaten warning to writers that went something like this: Beware of trying to knock your reader dead, because you just might succeed.

Annoying Word of the Month: Epicenter. Yep, it’s back, applied to yet another subject. “Epicenter” was also our annoying word of the month back in May and then again in our July-August issue. In May, it was the fad word for places where COVID-19 was spiking. In July-August, it referred to the location of protests. And now, in its coverage of the November election, Politico has called Mecklenburg and Wake counties in North Carolina “the epicenter of the epicenter of American politics.”

  • To repeat: “Epicenter” doesn’t really say anything that “center” doesn’t, but journalists seem to think it lends their otherwise lackluster prose a scientific and technical gloss. Maybe it does —but only to the uninformed.

For more information, contact Alan Crawford, editor of Impact.

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