I before e, except after c.
I before e, except after c.
Today’s New York Times Magazine had a blurb about a school in São Paulo, Brazil that has a novel way of teaching English. Here’s the article in its entirety:
TWITTER AS A SECOND LANGUAGE, by Hope Reeves
“Hi, @rihanna. I love your songs. My name is Carolina. I’m 11 years old,” began the tweet, which went on to correct Rihanna’s grammar. “It’s not to she, it’s to her,” Carolina wrote. Her tweet was part of an initiative at the Red Balloon School in São Paulo to teach English by correcting celebrities’ sloppy Twitterish. “So far no celeb has replied,” the school has said. “Hopefully they’re busy learning English.”
I could be a pedant and point out that the person who wrote that message for the school used “Hopefully” incorrectly. As written, it means that the celebrities are hopeful when, in fact, it is the school’s participants in this program who hope they will get a reply. But I have given up on this use of “hopefully”; common usage has emerged victorious.
Granted, my tolerance for substandard and iffy English is lower than most people’s, so bear with me.
Here is an example of a fancy-schmancy word that adds nothing to your message; this one you can throw away:
1. Gift—“My grandmother gifted me with her small gold locket.” Why use “gifted” when we already have a perfectly good word that is understood in every instance?
The following words don’t need to be discarded, but remember to use alternatives every now and then.
2. Purchase—Realize a clear, everyday alternative exists. As a fan of the “Antiques Roadshow,” I never, ever have heard anyone say they “bought” an object.
3. Prior to—Where, oh where, has “before” gone? Again, “prior to” appears 97.2% of the time (my estimate). It gets annoyingly repetitive.
4. Proceed—No one “goes” anywhere these days, but a whole lot of “proceeding” is taking place. Is “go” too simple? If you think so, tell me why. Do you think others might decide you are simple minded? Will they think you are Einstein’s heir if you always “proceed”?
5. Exit—I think it is perfectly fine to “leave” a building or a car or anything else you get out of.
These two adjectives are used as pejoratives: cheesy meaning something cheap or cheaply made, and corny meaning trite or schmaltzy. (Schmaltz is chicken fat in Yiddish. Go figure.)
Apparently, cheesy originated in the mid-19th century and alluded to the smell of overripe cheese. Perhaps that cheese was sold at a bargain rate, hence the adjective.
Corny arose when mail-order seed catalogs appeared in the early 1900s, and to fill out the spaces, seed companies would scatter the pages with cartoons and jokes. I imagine these were not of the highest level of sophistication, and the adjective corny became attached to them and their ilk.
My friend J.K. sent this article to me recently, and I did backflips when I read it. I love antiques, I love words, I love language—so this article was a trifecta for me:
It’s a good idea to avoid clichés in your writing. They are stale words and phrases that add nothing to your message except, perhaps, a “ho hum” from your readers.
You might be interested to know that many of today’s clichés were coined originally by Shakespeare in his plays. They were fresh at the time and seemed so apt that they became commonplace; over the centuries they evolved into the rank of clichés. Many more than these can be found in his writing, but here are a few to think about:
Lay it on with a trowel—As You Like It
Lie low—Much Ado About Nothing (“Nothing” in Shakespeare’s time also meant “noting,” or eavesdropping, a common theme in this play.)
Like the Dickens—The Merry Wives of Windsor This usage has nothing to do with Charles Dickens, who lived long after Shakespeare. “Dickens” is a synonym for the devil.
Makes your hair stand on end—Hamlet
Milk of human kindness—Macbeth
Much ado about nothing—Much Ado About Nothing, obviously
Mum’s the word—Henry VI, pt. 2
Night owl—Richard II and Twelfth Night
Neither a borrower nor a lender be—Hamlet
Off with his head—Henry VI, pt. 3
Rhyme nor reason—Comedy of Errors
Set one’s teeth on edge—Henry IV, pt. 1
Short shrift—Richard III
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark—Hamlet
Star-crossed lovers—Romeo and Juliet
Bowels of the earth—Henry IV, pt. 1
Devil incarnate—Henry V and Titus Andronicus (the latter being the bloodiest play you will ever read: the queen’s sons are served to her in a pie. Yum!)
Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—Hamlet
There’s method in my madness—Hamlet
The short and long of it—The Merry Wives of Windsor Notice that over the years we have switched the two nouns.
To be or not to be: that is the question—Hamlet
To sleep, perchance to dream—Hamlet
Too much of a good thing—As You Like It
Truth will out—The Merchant of Venice
Vanish into thin air—Othello, The Tempest
Band of brothers—Henry V
Wear your heart on your sleeve—Othello
What a piece of work is man—Hamlet When Shakespeare wrote this, he meant that humans were incomparable, the highest form of creature on earth. Today, when we call someone a “piece of work” we mean the opposite of what Shakespeare stated, a person who is at best incompetent and at worst malevolent.
What are today’s takeaways? Two things:
1. Read Shakespeare or see one of his plays. No one did it better.
2. Avoid clichés like the plague.
Because the Federal government is shut down (and I will refrain from irate political comments, difficult as that is for me), I presume no one is at work at the US Dept. of Commerce. Years ago, when Malcolm Baldridge became its director, he banned many words and phrases from department writing. If an employee used one, the computer screen would flash “Don’t Use This Word.” Here is merely a partial list. See if you are inordinately fond of any of them:
I would hope, as I am sure you are aware, bottom line, delighted, enclosed herewith, finalize, great majority, hopefully, needless to say, parameter, prior to [I swear I never see “before” in corporate writing], prioritize, share, therein, to impact, untimely death, effectuated, utilize.
I do understand that various professions have their own lingo: lawyerese, educatorese, psychobabble, engineerese, medicalese, etc. The language these people use helps them communicate with others within the same profession. I get that. My complaint is when they pollute the outside world, when that world already has perfectly fine words to to convey ideas. It’s a form of dumbing down the language.
Remember Woodsy Owl? “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”