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Infuriating Phrases

June 20, 2007
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Today, Slate had a good piece on why Hillary Clinton’s (and most other politicians’) speeches are so maddeningly boring. It’s because she and people like her stuff their addresses with meaningless jargon that has become so common we don’t even hear it anymore–mainly because we’ve learned to tune it out:

The worst offender—and this week’s column is officially apolitical—is Hillary Clinton, who is “running for president because I believe if we set big goals and we work together to achieve them, we can restore the American dream today and for the next generation.” Clinton also believes that “we can give people the education and opportunities they need to fulfill their God-given potentials,” and that “the foundation of a strong economy is the investments we make in each other.” Who could possibly disagree?

The article also leads readers to a hilarious contest run by the UK Daily Telegraph that asked readers to submit essays stuffed with as much jargon or slang as possible. A favorite excerpt:

A re-evaluation of our methodologies has led to a sea-change. Tasked with delivering sustainable growth in our external horticultural environment, a work-in-progress encompasses benchmarking the broccoli, risk-assessing the radishes and applying change management principles to the diverse peripherals on the compost heap.

This blog will provide frequent rants against jargon and hackneyed phrases. We welcome our readers to submit examples of their own pet peeves.


Posted in Word Use

I Have a Craven

June 8, 2007
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This morning I read a column in the New York Post in which Steve Dunleavy huffed and puffed about how Paris Hilton was released from jail after serving only five days of her sentence. [Aside: She’s since been dragged, literally kicking and screaming, back to the slammer. Woo!] I barely skimmed the piece, but my attention sharpened when I reached the concluding sentence:

So why would we expect anything from La La Land, which long ago replaced God with craven images – celebrities like Paris Hilton.

Ignore for the moment the fact that the question ends with a period. My first reaction was “What a doofus! It’s graven, not craven!” But then I wondered–was he actually making a very subtle play on the words? Per Webster’s, craven means “contemptibly faint-hearted.” One could certainly describe Miss Hilton that way. So tell me, smarty-pants readers, am I being too literal-minded, or am I giving Mr. Dunleavy and the Post too much credit for cleverness?


Posted in Word Use

Book Dip: More Fowler

June 3, 2007
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First, in response to readers’ requests for an example of an inversion, here is one from Fowler:

Little by little are these poor people being hemmed in & ground down by their cruel masters.

And, since he cross-referenced to Elegant Variation in that entry, here is an excerpt:

It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. . . . There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, & this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity.

The fatal influence is the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence–or within 20 lines or other limit. . . . The writer, far from carelessly repeating a word in a different application, has carefully not repeated it in a similar application; the effect is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointedly that it has none:– The Bohemian Diet will be the second Parliament to elect women deputies, for Sweden already has several lady deputies.

Boiled down, it’s the cliche of a foolish consistency, etc. Don’t be slavish to your English teachers’ admonitions, kids! Your writing will come out tentative and stilted.