Posts tagged with “grammar”

Communicate to Manage Change

All communication is about managing change. Good communication prepares the audience for the right kind of change.

Listen to the episode here:

OR SUBSCRIBE in iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.

Full Transcript

I’ve said that the most important part of writing well is knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing. And last week I had an opportunity to chat with an excellent public speaking coach, Stephanie Silverman, who agrees. We developed the idea that most speeches and writing projects will have the best likelihood of success if the writer sets out with a twofold aim: to recruit and to empower.

This week I want to step backward just a little. I want to talk about the purpose of all communication, of every kind. That purpose is to manage change.

Page 1: Princess Belle and the large, pale creature.

Before I get all theoretical about it, let’s jump right to the concrete and practical. Let’s start this episode with the story of Princess Belle and her not very charming encounter.

NaNoWriMo badge 180x180Princess Belle is her online name. If I remembered her real name I wouldn’t use it here; we had enough stalking in episode 4.

She’s two seats to my left at a long table where a number of us are, between bites of pizza and bits of conversation, typing furiously on our laptops. It’s November, and that means it’s National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. We’re at a write-in at Empire’s Comics Vault. The place is bigger than I’d expected, and I feel dwarfed by it.

I’m meeting a number of my fellow writers for the first time, including Princess Belle, who’s about 20 years old.

I’ve asked Princess Belle about herself, and I’ve learned a lot, including that she speaks charmingly and greatly enjoys doing so. That was an hour ago, and I’ve returned to mostly minding my own business. I’m typing and typing and typing, when I hear a voice, a great and booming voice, a voice like that of a man but somewhat larger.

“So, you’re writing a novel, huh?”

And I hear the far smaller voice of the Princess. “Yes. I’m trying.”

I look to my left, and see the large pale creature, looming over the seated Princess and addressing her again.

“So that means you have brains. And you’ve got good looks. Nice combination.”

Audrey Hepburn in Charade. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Audrey Hepburn in Charade. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Oh, did I neglect to describe Princess Belle? Well, the large pale creature was right. We fiction writers are told not to take the cheap shortcut around description that I’m about to take, but the Princess makes it all too easy. Physically, she’s Audrey Hepburn at about the same age. Any difference is chump change.

She replies, “Umh, thank you.”

“So, I was wondering if you’d like to go out with me.”

[Sweet Brown: Then I ran out I din’t grab no shoes or nothin’, I ran for my life.]

strange four-eyed creature

My four eyes are for only you. (photo: carulmare, flickr)

Well, in truth, nobody ran. A whole tableful of writers and a few others are now looking at the large pale creature, but he doesn’t notice. It seems his four eyes are only for the Princess. Silent for a very long time, and too proud to beg us for help, she looks, alternately, at the large pale creature and her laptop. This is awkward enough that I’m wondering if someone at the table is going to bail her out. But, of course, we’re fiction writers. If it’s not really dangerous, this is the sort of thing we don’t interrupt but memorize.

If you’re extremely surprised at this man’s behavior, maybe there’s something in the concept of a “comics shop” you don’t understand. On the other hand, if you’re not at all surprised, perhaps you yourself need a bit of schooling in the protocols of courtship.

In any case, we will squeeze some sort of lesson from this lemon of an encounter. But not just yet.

mail bag

My mail bag runneth over! (photo: Marcin Wichary, flickr)

Page 2: Comments from my listeners.

I’m delighted to report that my shameless begging for feedback has met with success. So much, in fact, that I can’t respond to all the responses. But I’ll take a few bits from the mailbag, not exactly at random.

Feedback item 1: Terminal Prepositions

Listener John asks: “what are the tools, methods or tricks to solving the problem of the ban on prepositions at the ends of sentences?”

My smart-aleck answer is to declare that banning terminal prepositions is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which you should not put.

My more serious answer is to go ask Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl. There’s a link to her podcast in my right sidebar. [But this link takes you to Grammar Girl’s discussion of terminal prepositions.]  This is the sort of question she’s great at.

Well, if you’re too rushed to go over there, I can cover the matter here in a few words. The rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is a bogus rule. Ignore it. But do memorize the following: “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.” That little gem exemplifies what you should avoid: Not ending a sentence with a preposition, which is perfectly legal, but ending a sentence with a word that has no function in the sentence at all. The same sentence without the final preposition runs “Never use a preposition to end a sentence”, and it makes perfect sense. As a sentence, that is. As a rule it remains a bad rule, the sort of nonsense up which nobody should ever have cooked.

But seriously, John, your question gives me an opportunity to say where I believe Word Shots fits within the world of language resources.

To wit: Word Shots is an advanced course. Grammar Girl does her work very well, and she’s a real help. My hope is to be as helpful as she is, but for people who already know more than 85% of what she teaches. My unhumble little podcast stands between her and those highly advanced language resources whose purpose is not to help improve your skills, but to display the erudition of the author or speaker.

So, for example, I love listening to Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast. And one can glean from it some real insight into language. Listening to it may improve your writing or speaking, but that would be an incidental benefit. It’s an advanced course, but not one with an explicitly practical purpose. In my podcast, although I may sometimes fly at a lofty theoretical altitude, my purpose is still to give an understanding of language and communications that will help my listeners improve at both.

Feedback Item 2: Ain’t nobody got time for a podcast.

From no fewer than three readers, I learn that people are reading Word Shots, as opposed to listening to it. Chris says she simply doesn’t “do” podcasts. Jenny makes bold to say, concerning listening to a podcast…

Sweet Brown

A podcast? A podcast!? When my apartment’s on fire?

[Ain’t nobody got time for that.]

Brian didn’t explicitly say he doesn’t listen, but he gave away that he’s a reader by responding to something that’s on the blog but not in the audio.

And these three people give me a perfect opportunity to talk about how to consume Word Shots.

English: Podcast or podcasting icon Français :...

I love my listeners. But I love my readers, too! (photo: Wikipedia)

The answer is: consume it any way you can. Any way that feels right. I do considerable work to make it worth anyone’s while to listen or to read, or to do both. That includes putting a complete transcript of the audio on the blog.

But you should know that listening and reading will provide two quite different experiences.

If you only do one or the other, you just might miss something.

If you only read you may miss:

  • Music
  • The different voices of guests
  • Sound effects
  • Vocal effects
  • Pronunciation, when pronunciation is the heart of the matter, and
  • Outtakes and codas at the end that aren’t described in the transcript. For example, there’s a little miscue between Stephanie Silverman and me at the end of Episode 6. We found it a tad more funny than embarrassing, so I spliced it in right before the end of the final music.

So, that’s what you miss if you only read. If you only listen you may miss:

  • Helpful hyperlinks that I add to the transcripts
  • Images I’ve chosen to complement the text
  • All the cool stuff in the sidebar, such as snippets from related posts on the companion blog, Maximum Strength Writing, and
  • Headings that I sometimes add to break up the Saharan expanse of the transcript text.

So again I say, consume Word Shots any way you want. Every way is better than no way.

Feedback Item 3: Shaking up listeners.

The aforementioned Jenny sent quite a little sheaf of questions and comments she hopes I’ll respond to. Here’s one: “I read an article once about how purposefully using an odd word shakes listeners out of routine and into mindfulness.”

Well, that’s something I can respond to. And I’m going to bring the Princess back to help me.

Page 3: Communication As Change Management

So, back to the beginning. The purpose of every kind of communication is to manage change.

In managing change, there are two opposite purposes we might have. We might want to slow or prevent change. Or we might want to cause or hasten change. Virginia Postrel gave us handy words for these two poles: stasism is a bias toward no change or slow change, stasis; and dynamism is a bias toward more and faster change.

Much of communication is ritualization. And the main purpose of ritualization is to slow or prevent change. It’s to keep things in their accustomed places, to keep life on an even keel.

Although to an academic, ritualization may be very interesting, to someone seeking to provide advanced communication skills, it’s not something to spend a lot of time on. “How about them Yankees?” is typical ritualization, and while it may be interesting to a sociologist, if you need me to tell you how to say it, or when and where not to, you probably need more help than I can give.

Ritualization makes up a large part of our expense of communication energy, and I’m making the distinction between it and everything else, mostly just to say that the part of communication that I’m most interested in is the other part.

In ritualization, the connotations of words have more weight than their denotations. An effective ritual may involve incantations whose meaning is unknown to anyone doing the incanting. If the syllables are sung or chanted correctly, there’s nothing to them but connotation, and that’s all that’s required.

In episode 6, I introduced the idea of an opus. That’s a piece of communication that’s complex enough to require significant planning. One example I gave of a non-opus was a note asking one’s mate to pick up a loaf of bread.

loaf of bread

Bread is normal. Its absence is not. (photo: Teuobk, flickr)

Let’s look at that note for a minute. It’s too simple to be an opus. But it’s also not mere ritualization, is it? After all, its aim is to bring about change, such that here in the pantry which once was bare, behold, there shall be bread.

But how much change is involved, really? The fact is that in most households, the presence of some bread is not the exception but the norm. Thus to request the bread’s renewal is to request not a change but the setting of things to rights, the bringing of things back to equilibrium. On the other hand, if a wife wanted to talk her husband into giving up white bread in favor of something supplying a bit more nutrition and fiber, her communication might well have to be an opus. She might have to strategize before opening her mouth or setting pencil to paper.

Now, although I’ve said I’m not much interested in ritualization, in point of fact it’s unavoidable. Even in communications that aren’t mostly ritual, ritual is still involved. And that’s what brings us back to Empire’s Comics Vault.

When man meets woman and certain intentions develop, there’s an interesting change-management project underway, if the courage exists to undertake it. The courage only needs to exist on one side. In our little scene in the comics shop, one person wanted very much to change his relationship status. He put some real effort into it.

Page 4: What we talk about when we talk about courtship

But when we talk about courtship, we very often talk about ritual. And in our species as in many others, ritual is very much involved. So if courtship is such a major change project, why does it involve something that I’ve said is primarily stasist?

Ah, that’s because we don’t want to promise only change. Taking on a new relationship status (isn’t that a delightful euphemism?) is such a big hulking scary thing that we want it to come with assurances. We welcome the dizzy madness of new romance, but we hope that it will bring with it some whole new brand of steadiness.

[Paul and Storm: My love is a sailing ship, seeking out a friendly shore…]

In short, we want our stasism and our dynamism well-mixed.

Thus, for example, if you approach someone with an eye to romance, there are several subtle ways to assure him or her that, if anything interesting develops between you, you can be counted to be discreet about it. Pitching your woo in a voice that resounds throughout a building half the size of a football field conveys rather a different impression.Comics Shop

[Paul and Storm: your love is the ocean that drowns me…]

So, to Jenny’s comment: Yes, using an unusual word can shake up the reader. One might, for example, use the slang expression “chump change” in a context having nothing to do with money. But if the reader hasn’t found reason to trust you, such strangeness will only alienate. That’s why I say, over and over, that although to become truly good at writing, you need to graduate from grammar, I also say that you’ll need to keep studying grammar and write with an eye to getting it right.

Otherwise, when you introduce that bit of strangeness, your audience is tempted to flee. Your audience must feel “I’m putting my intellectual life in the hands of somebody who respects it and knows how to take care of it.” Fail at that, and you’re dead in the water, like the large, pale creature in the comics shop; your ship will never sail into the port it seeks.

I’ve just discussed communication as change management. And I’ve pointed out how, even when you want to bring about a major change, you’ll be effective if you also promise that certain things will remain steady, if you promise some kind of stasis.

Let’s tie this back to the previous episode. There, I talked with Stephanie about the two important goals of a well-designed communication: recruitment and empowerment. And this week I talked about the most important of all recruitment efforts: courtship.

In future episodes, I’ll discuss recruitment a great deal more. But for next week, let’s turn our attention to empowerment. I’ll talk about the single most important feature of communication that, when it’s done right, empowers your audience to take in and benefit from your message.

Until then, this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a great week and effective communication.
[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]

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Episode #005: Anything You Can Do, You Can Do Meta

English has too many rules to remember them all. But some meta-rules can help us master the complexity.

Listen to the episode here:

OR SUBSCRIBE in iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.

Full Transcript

Here’s what I want to do in this episode. I want to prepare you for the rest of the episodes. And here’s what I want to do in the rest of the episodes: I want to equip you to make good decisions about your use of language.

Only 1842 pages!

Only 1842 pages!

Rules Within Rules

In episode one, I talked about how little we can rely on rules to make our English as strong and useful as it can be. Part of the problem, I’ll remind you, is that English is so complex that, if we have to rely on conscious rules for everything, there will be just too many to remember. But think about how much life would be simplified if you had a rule that contained within it a hundred or more rules. If such a rule could exist, then to be useful, it couldn’t exactly contain the other rules; if it did, then to remember the one rule, you’d actually have to remember all the sub-rules it contains. There’d be no simplification at all. Instead, what a rule must do in order to save you from having to remember a hundred rules, is that it must be able to generate those rules.

A rule that can generate rules is what we call a meta-rule. And the good news for all of us is that we can learn to use meta-rules as easily as we can learn to use rules.

But wouldn’t it be great if, after discovering a few thousand meta-rules to contain the millions of rules required by English, we could then discover some meta-meta rules to contain those? And then some meta-meta-meta rules to contain those? And how far could it go? How many metas would we have to stack up to get all the rules down to a truly small number?

Are we meta yet?

Hugh MacLeod –

Well, the fact is that each of us does have a small number of über-rules (ultra-meta-rules?) that guide us all the time. These ultra-meta-rules are our fundamental values and beliefs. These beliefs include beliefs about why we do what we do. In fact, our understanding of what it is we’re doing is a kind of belief.

Yet More Meta

So, if I’m going to teach you some meta-rules, I should go ahead and state what my fundamental values and beliefs are, or at least those that are relevant to the topic at hand. This is because a meta-rule can’t contain or generate an incompatible rule. This means that, if you find that your fundamental values and beliefs are very different from mine, you’ll probably also find that you won’t see much sense in the meta-rules that I’ll be teaching here. The rules I’ll generate out of my metarules won’t make sense to you if you don’t share the basic understanding out of which they grow.

I have to confess that I haven’t tried every possible set of meta-rules. I’ve used some that grow out of my fundamental values and a theory of what language is for. I don’t believe that I can necessarily talk you into sharing my values or even my theory. Some things simply have to be taken as a starting point, because to go back to very first principles would simply take too much time and involve us in too much complexity.

The Essential Santayana book cover

George Santayana

Some basics in our lives are like that. For example, the philosopher George Santayanasaid, “That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.”

So, without trying to make a complete case for them, as if they were presuppositions, I’ll repeat the values that underlie my approach to speaking and writing:

  1. I respect my audience.
  2. I respect the English language.

A Love That Speaks Its Name

Time for a personal confession. I said that I respect my audience. The truth goes beyond that. The fact is that I love humanity. Part of this, I’m sure, is unreasonable and unreasoning. If it’s a disease, this crazy and inexplicable love of humanity, it’s a disease I share with dogs. In any case, I’ve got it.

But, for my wanting to supply others with English as a powerful tool, I have some perfectly reasonable grounds. Mainly, it’s a matter of my wanting the people around me to make the best possible decisions.

Let me unpack that a little.

The fact is, we don’t live in a world of nature, if by nature we mean a world free of human influences. We live, mainly, in a world of human construction, a social world. It’s also a world that’s moving toward less authoritarian societies. This movement is not inevitable. Or, even if it is, it’s not inevitable that the progress will be steady and quick. It’s also not uniform. But it seems to be happening, and I welcome it.

Big Brother, Inc. poster

Down with….

In a less authoritarian world, people need better tools for making personal decisions. The first of these tools is language. The more democratic a society becomes, the less change can be managed simply by establishing who’s boss. In an autocratic or highly stratified society, much communication needs to achieve nothing more than to say, “do this or else”, or “don’t do that or else.” The reasons why things are done or not done are dreadfully simple. The less our lives are driven by our place in a pecking order, the more we must rely on language to tell us not only what we must or mustn’t do, or even what options are open to us, and more about how we can choose among options; in other words, why.

Language and Choice

Why is a very tricky matter, especially in the absence of strong authority. “Or else you’ll be punished” is simple. Far less simple are the whys that aren’t imposed on us, whys such as, “Because it will increase your likelihood of happiness by a small percentage”. Or, “because it might result in fewer highway deaths.” Why is about complex calculations, about tradeoffs, and about nuance. In a world in which why isn’t simply imposed on us from above, we need a tool for exploring these complex matters. Language is the first of these tools.

Even in the intrapersonal space, that is, where you and I speak to ourselves alone, we use language. And because we need to process matters of why, even internally, we need for language to be a good tool for conveying meaning. In other words, if we speak to ourselves in private, even there we need clear and effective language, to help us make good decisions.

“No man is an island”, said John Donne, and he was right. He was a poet, and didn’t think it was his responsibility to delve too deeply into the whys and wherefores or even the precise how of our being interconnected and interdependent.

Communicable Health

But let’s start with what’s easy to see: In the realm of communicable diseases, it should be clear to everybody (even if, sadly, it’s not) that there’s no clear boundary between private and public health.

Public Health sign with tissues.Every winter we have a flu season. Influenza cases increase greatly in the months of December through March. The more cases occur, the higher the likelihood of other cases, since the victims of the disease also serve as its carriers. This means that every time an individual makes a bad decision which increases his likelihood of catching the disease, he also increases the odds of his becoming a carrier. The greater the number of individuals who make poor choices that seem private, the greater the public danger.

Contagious disease represents only one of the most obvious examples of private behavior being also public. In many other areas of life as well, I want people around me to make the best possible decisions for themselves, because the sum total of all those tiny decisions is the overall health and sanity of the society I get to live in.

If the people around me are going to make good decisions, they need to have good tools for deliberating, that is, for considering their options. The first of those tools is language. And that’s why I care about fostering a language that’s as good a tool as possible.

As George Orwell put it, our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Tom Stoppard book cover

“A healthy attitude is contagious but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier.”
– T. Stoppard

In other words, poor language is a self-reinforcing causal loop. It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s one I want to do everything I can to break. I want the people who make up my environment to think about things in ways that clarify rather than obscure what they’re thinking about. That’s how they’ll make good decisions.

That’s why I want to equip you with language that does its work well. I want the habit of clear thought to spread from sea to shining sea, and beyond.

There’s Nothing More Practical Than a Good Theory

In this episode, I’ve been dealing with the extremely meta level of fundamental values and beliefs. Next comes the matter of what meta-rules follow from those meta-meta-rules. And that’s what I’ll be aiming at in all the other episodes of this podcast. I’ll be trying to trace a coherent line of thought from respect for audience and respect for the language all the way down to the tiniest day-to-day matters like subject-verb agreement.

For me, this process, of moving from the most meta down to the finest-grained rules, involves defining what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

If that sounds awfully theoretical… well, it is. But if you think it’s not practical to start at such a high level, that’s where I respectfully disagree. One of my guiding principles was stated very handily by organizational management guru Kurt Lewin. He said, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin

Looking over my career as a communicator, I’d have to say that the single most common reason I’ve seen communication efforts fail is that people have forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing. In too many cases, they never clarified the why at all.

So, in our next episode, we’ll start looking at why we communicate, and what the whole process involves. That will be the foundation for our developing some meta-rules that will make our communication stronger.

Is it really possible that you and I can improve the overall quality of thought in the English-speaking world?

I, certainly, am willing to try, and I hope you’ll join me, starting with the next episode.

Until then, I’m Max Christian Hansen wishing you a great week and effective communication.

Good-bye, now.

[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]

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Episode #003: Yes, It’s a Word, But Is It One You Should Use?

In this episode, we look at how two non-native English speakers damaged their writing by using perfectly “legal” English words that no English speaker ever heard.

Listen to the episode here:

Or subscribe in iTunes.

Full transcript (headings aren’t in audio):

unabridged dictionary

Scott Robinson – Flickr

Last week I talked about who gets to decide whether something that might be a word is in fact a word. And I suggested that the right answer is not the makers of dictionaries, but the best writers.

Are Dictionaries Valuable?

Now, that may have prompted the question whether I believe dictionaries are valuable at all. The answer is that I’m sure they are valuable. Reference books on words and grammar and usage are valuable. Some are more valuable than others, of course, because some are better than others.

This week I’m going to talk about two specific instances in my career as a writer and editor in which a dictionary did not provide the right solution to the problem I faced. First, though—spoiler alert—since I’m going to tell you that you can possibly do without a dictionary, I’m going to tell you what one book you really ought to have on your shelf if you want to attain to great heights as a wordsmith.

That book is Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner. I recommend the third edition, published in 2009. The last time I looked, it cost only about $26 at Amazon.

Now, a couple of issues to discuss.

Usage and Grammar Guides: Don’t Pay Classroom Prices

First, why do I recommend the third edition? Well, let’s reverse that and ask why I wouldn’t recommend the most recent edition of a book. And that is an excellent question.

There are a number of books that I recommend, but not necessarily in their lastest editions. The reason is that many of these books are used in classrooms. And in nearly every case in which a book is commonly used in the classroom, that book is reissued too often.

Why? Because when your professor puts a book on a reading list, students are expected to buy the specified edition. This makes all kinds of sense. When the professor in class says, “Let’s turn to page 72 and look at the chart there,” it really helps if that chart is in fact on page 72 for everybody. This isn’t very likely if students are using different editions.

Now, if you’re a book publisher, and you publish a new edition every ten years, then during several of those years you’ll see your annual sales decreasing steadily, even though the same number of students are being assigned your book every year. This happens because with every passing year, the number of used copies of your book increases, and students will happily pay less money on the used market than for the new copy, since they get the same book either way. So, if your goal is to maximize profits, you’ll want to issue new editions fairly often, since each time you do so, you make the used copies of almost no value to current students; they have to buy the new.

Garner's Modern American Usage front cover

A very useful book.

For example, the Little, Brown franchise publishes a very good book called The Little, Brown HandbookI bought a copy some years ago, and I was very impressed with it. The first edition of the Handbook came out in 1980. It’s currently in its 12th edition, published in 2011. This means the book has been updated roughly every two and a half years. The current edition lists for $73.49. Used copies of older editions can be had for under ten dollars. Thus, this book is one that I recommend, but unless you’ll need to read the same materials with the same pagination as a group of others, in other words, unless you’ve been assigned the book for a class, I don’t recommend paying the huge price for the latest edition.

Get the Latest from Bryan Garner

Why, then, do I recommend buying the latest edition of Garner’s usage guide?

First, because the changes since the previous edition are considerable. There’s simply a lot more material than there was before. More importantly, Bryan Garner added a new feature to the third edition that I and many others find very valuable. It’s the Language-Change Index, which is a scale of one to five, by which Garner gives you his best estimate of the degree to which a disputed usage is currently regarded as acceptable. On this scale, a score of one means that the usage (or spelling or whatever) is regarded as acceptable by virtually no careful writers. In other words, it’s flat-out wrong. A score of five means that this usage is fully accepted.

Now I’m about to make my boldest statement of all in recommendation of Garner’s Modern American Usage: It’s simply the most important book you can buy if you write in English for American readers. And I say that not even knowing whether you own a dictionary. Yes, that means what you think it means: I’m saying that owning Garner is more important than owning a dictionary.

To explain why, here’s today’s story.

Carmen’s Unabridged Diction

In episode 1, I mentioned that I’ve had some success writing fund-raising letters. One of the few times I’ve done this, it was for a wonderful Salvadoran woman, living in California, who supported women’s cooperatives in El Salvador. Besides raising funds for her, which involved writing a letter in my own name, I also edited her own English-language newsletter, which she sent out periodically to her supporters.

Carmen Broz of El Salvador and California

Carmen Morán Broz

This was after a period of terrible troubles in El Salvador, and as those troubles were passing, she wrote about the challenges faced by the country. One of these was that there was considerable corruption in the military. So, Carmen wrote that the cleansing of the military was among the projects the country would have to perform in the near future. But, in the draft of the newsletter I was asked to edit, Carmen didn’t say “the cleansing of the military”. What she wrote instead was “the depuration of the military.”

I’m not sure I ever got a straight answer to my question where she had learned this word. I did learn that she was confident it was a perfectly good English word, which I would find in my Webster’s Third Unabridged.

If this had been the age of Google, my quandary wouldn’t have been very acute. But it was before not only Google but the World Wide Web, so I had to use my old-fashioned paper dictionaries. The word was in an unabridged dictionary, but not in any collegiate dictionary I owned, and so I suspected that, while it may be a perfectly good English word, it was probably one very seldom used. In a case like this, the best choice is to find a word that is actually in common use. Since “depuration” means “cleansing” or “purification”, the substitution would have been easy, except that one possibility nagged at me: that depuration might be a technical term, might in fact be exactly the term used when the cleansing being discussed is taking place in a military organization.

I can’t even remember how I resolved the issue. My point is that now, given the Web and Google, it would have been easy to learn what I needed to learn. Not only will Google show that the word is seldom used, but also that it has no special military associations. In other words, there’s no good reason to use it.

The more general point, then, is that the web provides not only most of the common information that a paper dictionary provides, but even more. It can provide a quick and broad sampling of how a word is actually used by writers. Now, clearly, these aren’t necessarily the more careful of writers; to look only for those, you’d want to consult a corpus, but even these exist online.

I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Some years later, I had exactly the same problem with another non-native English writer. I was editing for a management consulting firm, and a very intelligent man from Israel used the word “elusory” in his writing. The word was not “illusory”; that word begins with an I and is the adjective associated with “illusion”. Nor was it “elusive”, which begins with an E and is the adjective built from the root “elude”. Instead it was a cross between the two: E L U S O R Y. Turning to Garner, we read that this word I just spelled out is indeed a word, but is a needless variant of elusive. Once again, I had a non-native speaker of English tell me that a word was a perfectly good English word because it could be found in a dictionary, even though one might spend many decades among well-educated Americans and never hear the word. Nor would you see it in print in those same decades’ reading.

What's another word for thesaurus - Steven Wright

Ray MacLean – Flickr

In other words, yes, it is a word. But that’s not sufficient reason for using it. To do so is to send your readers to their own dictionaries only to learn that you’ve used an obscure word for which there was a perfectly common substitute handy.

What’s worse, your reader may never be sure whether you meant elusive or illusory. I was never able to learn it from my Israeli writer. Fortunately (or not), the entire paragraph was a tangle, and the paper didn’t seem to require it, so I cut it entirely.

How Not to Use a Thesaurus

I never did learn, in either of these cases, where my writer had found the questionable word. I suspect the thesaurus. This book, handy though it is, is responsible for too many poorly chosen words. These kinds of problems can often be prevented by this simple rule: use a thesaurus only to jog your memory. Never use a word that you met there for the very first time. You don’t know where it’s been. You don’t even know whether it’s been anywhere in recent decades.

I’ve mentioned Garner’s Modern American Usage, and I’ve talked about the limitations of dictionaries. In the next episode, I’ll tell one more story about how a writer got in trouble that a dictionary couldn’t have kept him out of. After that, I’ll start a short series of podcasts that will explain my overall approach to verbal communication.

Until then this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a great week, and effective communication.

[This episode does not include Max’s usual call for comments. But please let us know what you’re thinking.]

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Word Shots Episode #002 — Who gets to decide what’s a word?
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