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Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Words and Language Toolbox

On words and nonwords

By Paula LaRocque

It’s doubtless stating the obvious to say that good writing begins with the single word. Obvious it may be, but we writers are often so concerned with other aspects of writing that we neglect this most basic element.

Of course words matter! A passage that would otherwise be memorable for its polish can be marred by one ill-chosen word — whether awkward, ugly, wrong or almost wrong. Why? Because readers love a swift and silken flow from word to word, with nothing to impede their progress. And the awkward, ugly, wrong or almost wrong word is a hitch in the gitalong.

Chief among these offenders are nonwords — or, as literary scholar Richard Grant White described them, “usurpers, interlopers or vulgar pretenders.” Such nonwords, he added, were largely due to “misapprehension or whimsical perversion of some real word.”

Here, from a Facebook post, is one of those vulgar pretenders. (Ironically, the post dealt with correct/incorrect word use. Doesn’t it always happen that way?)

Your response did not answer my question, it merely legitimated my point.

Let’s set aside for a moment (in fact, forever) that this sentence is incorrectly punctuated. Instead, we’ll focus on the ham-fisted “legitimated.” That word debases both the writing and the writer’s credibility (especially since she was, as I said, pontificating on using words correctly). The problem is that “legitimate” is an adjective, and its verb is “legitimize.” Most readers understand this and expect professional writers to know at least as much about the language as they.

The thing to note is that if this writer had written “legitimized my point,” her words not only would have kept their authenticity, but they also would have moved along without a hitch.

In short, good writers don’t sabotage their own work with stumbling suffixes or lame prefixes when they can’t think of the right word. They know the accepted forms.

Yet, a business writer refers to an economist’s “analyzation” — instead of the standard analysis. A sports reporter says a player revealed his athletic “ineptness”—instead of the standard ineptitude. A critic says some of the artist’s works were mere “annoyments” — instead of the standard annoyances. An editorialist writes that the city should “optimalize” the windfall — instead of the standard optimize.

And that’s not the half of it. A political analyst writes that the president’s remark could be interpreted as an “admonishment” — instead of the standard admonition. A columnist writes that a problem is “unsolvable” instead of the standard insoluble. A reporter says someone is trying to “disassociate” himself from an event — instead of the standard (in American English) dissociate.

An editor writes that he wants an efficient operation “apropos to” the company’s overall goals. The standard term for this context is appropriate to “Apropos,” which means with respect to or concerning does not take the word “to”; it takes the preposition “of.” Fyodor Dostoevsky used it correctly in "Notes From Underground" with the title “Apropos of the Wet Snow” (sometimes translated as “Apropos of the Falling Snow”).

The illogical nonword “uncategorical” is gaining surprising traction in the media given that if it meant anything at all, it would mean the opposite of what is supposed. A source denied the charges “uncategorically,” a reporter writes. But the standard word for this context is categorically, which means in every category, without qualification, unconditionally. Does the reporter really mean that the source sort of denied the charges? That he offered a qualified and conditional denial?

This discussion of words might be a good time to mention the function and role of dictionaries. We may find a substandard word listed as an alternative in a dictionary, but that does not mean the word has the blessing of linguistic experts. Dictionaries are wonderful, and they include usage notes whenever they can. But they are more descriptive than they are prescriptive. Their job is to reflect diction and to suggest what a certain word may have meant in different contexts. Dictionaries cast wide nets; that’s their job.

So, beyond dictionaries, writers need reliable reference works on usage. Bryan A. Garner’s "Modern American Usage" is excellent, and I’ve touted his work in this column before. (Also, if you have my book "The Book on Writing," check out chapter five on using the right word. The handbook and style guide in the book also will be helpful regarding usage.)

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” “Championship Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line.” Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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