Essay

On language: The unfortunate nominalization of spend and ask

James Kilpatrick

James Kilpatrick

James Kilpatrick may have been best known for his syndicated political newespaper column, but I preferred his weekly column about writing and English called “The Writer’s Art.” I loved it when in his column he’d put on his virtual judicial robes and open the Court of Peeves, Crotchets, and Irks, for what followed would be a humorous, incisive invective on foibles of our English language.

Kilpatrick passed in 2010. I miss his column.

I wonder how he’d address a trend I’m hearing that dips from the well of nominalization. I’m in favor of making nouns from other parts of speech when the conversion is necessary or helpful. This is how we get useful words like investigation, which is an ancient nominalization of investigate.

But I don’t think ask and spend need to be used as nouns. To be fair, there’s precedent: etymologists have found occasional uses of these words as nouns going back almost 400 years. It’s like a recurring passing fad. But the poor dears don’t even get the whole treatment, as they are not transformed (as investigate becomes investigation). They are used as is:

Ask: What are the asks here? My ask is that you deliver the project by next Friday. Wow, that’s a big ask.

Spend: Our marketing spend exceeded budget again last month. This month, we anticipate a spend of about $1 million.

This usage makes one sound savvy, in the know. But it also pulls the punch and blurs meaning, making concrete expectations and budgets seem abstract. Ask even carries a passive-aggressive note. What happens when we say exactly what we mean?

Ask: What do you want? I want you to deliver the project by next Friday. Wow, I’m not sure that’s possible.

Spend: We overspent our marketing budget again last month. This month, we plan to spend about $1 million.

Ah, sweet clarity!

Advertisements
Standard
Stories Told

Defending good grammar, sort of

This post first appeared three years ago today. WordPress.com included it among that day’s Freshly Pressed posts, which led to the most views ever in one day on this blog: 5,189. That was a tenth of all the views I got all that year! It was a turning point for my little blog, bringing me lots of new readers. Maybe you are one of them.

Blogger Penelope Trunk wrote last year in defense of poor grammar. And then recently she did it again. She claims that it’s better to judge people by their ideas, creativity, and enthusiasm than by how well they write. The implication is that as long as they can get their ideas across, the grammar (and, by extension, punctuation and spelling) isn’t all that important. She goes on to claim that good grammar might actually hold you back in your career!

For several years I made my living as a writer and editor, so obviously I’m going to disagree. But I don’t disagree violently. I rather like some of Penelope’s arguments. She just applies them with a bit too heavy of a hand.

GrammarNaziCatBack when I edited other people’s words for my supper, I edited all of David Pogue’s books. (Since then, he’s become the technology columnist for the New York Times.) His copy, always clear and engaging, was a pleasure to edit. Because his books sold like mad, my bosses always gave me plenty of time to work on them.

Most of my other authors wrote B- and C-list titles, which meant I got far less time to edit them. Too bad, because none of those authors wrote as well as Pogue. So I developed a hierarchy of editing that let me do the most good with the time I had. My first pass through someone’s text fixed problems of organization and structure, making the text more expository. My second pass fixed problems of logic and fact that would confuse or mislead readers. My third pass fixed errors of syntax and style. My final pass fixed grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. I stopped editing when I ran out of time – and I seldom made it to the final pass.

Let’s be real. If a writer confuses its and it’s or writes sight for sitenobody’s going to misunderstand. And Penelope argues that the goal should be simply to get your ideas across. If I got through just the first two passes in my hierarchy, I made dramatic improvements to the text’s ability to do that. In comparison, grammar, punctuation, and spelling were just window dressing.

Penelope also condemns impeccable grammar as the product of “demented, perfectionist thinking.” As a recovering perfectionist, I can say with some authority that for most tasks, perfection is at best a waste of time and at worst pathological. Anything you do can always be done better, but past some point the effort to make it better isn’t worth the return. Unless you’re disarming a bomb, good enough is just right.

But I can’t go all the way with Penelope and say that grammar doesn’t matter. After all, it gives us the tools to make sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting. I have to think Penelope isn’t opposed to clarity and interestingness, but rather to needless attention to detail.

The trick, then, is in determining the point past which polish doesn’t pay, and that depends entirely on what you’re writing and who will read it. If you’re writing something fast for your friends, like a text message or a quick e-mail, type it, send it, and don’t worry about it. At the other end of the spectrum stands high literature, which deserves your utmost effort – and which, sorry to say, you are probably not writing. For everything in between, make the right reasonable effort to get it right, and then stop. Reread that letter to the editor or proposal to your boss and fix what you find. Hire someone to edit your resume or business plan or any other document that may form your first or only impression. But then if a grammar, punctuation, or spelling mistake slips through, let the brilliance of your ideas outshine it.

readmore2

I’ve been Freshly Pressed thrice more: about
this camera, this camera, and these old cars.

Standard
Stories Told

Seeking injunctive relief from the misuse of “amazing”

I’m rerunning this 2011 post because it didn’t solve the problem the first time. Try, try again.

IN THE COURT OF PEEVES, CROTCHETS, AND IRKS
CAUSE NO.  _________________________

JIM GREY

Petitioner

v.

ALL ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLE EVERYWHERE

Respondent

 

PETITION FOR INJUNCTION PROHIBITING
MISUSE OF THE WORD “AMAZING”

The Petitioner alleges against the Respondent and states as follows:

  1. That the word “amazing” means “causing a sudden, overwhelming sense of surprise, astonishment, or wonder;” that without all three points of this definition, namely sudden, plus overwhelming, plus surprise/astonishment/wonder, the word amazing cannot apply.
  2. That the Respondent has, in recent years, taken to using the word “amazing” in contexts beyond the word’s originally contemplated meanings:
    1. That although the Respondent may say that their children are amazing, that they routinely fart and belch, and fail to do their homework and receive poor grades, and play too many video games, and text their friends during dinner; indeed, their lives are spent engaged primarily in non-amazing activities.
    2. That the Respondent is known to call church worship services amazing when, in fact, the experiences were merely uplifting or deeply moving. An amazing service would involve God being bodily present, healing leprosy and making the lame walk.
    3. That when the Respondent takes in a sporting event and calls the score, the players, the coach, certain plays, the arena, and even the hot dogs amazing, just as he/she did at the previous sporting event, and the one before that, that such events are therefore common and not amazing.
    4. That the meal the Respondent had at the fine restaurant, or that the Respondent’s mother made at the last major holiday, may have been quite delicious, and may have introduced delightful new flavors to the Respondent’s palate, but remained far from the realm of amazing.
    5. That the Respondent’s last vacation to a distant location may have provided many exciting experiences not available at home. But given that the location has its own problems, such as widespread poverty, confiscatory taxation, a shortage of drinkable water, or a wicked tsumani season, it is inaccurate to call the location amazing.
    6. That when the Respondent, in the execution of his/her duties at his/her place of employment, calls the company’s offered products or services amazing, that this is just marketing puffery intended to mask the problems the Respondent knows to exist in the products or services. Moreover, the rare product that may have initially caused true amazement, such as the iPhone, quickly becomes widely adopted, irreparably harming its ability to amaze.
  3. That Respondent’s overuse and misapplication of the word “amazing” has cheapened the word and rendered it nearly meaningless, causing it severe damage. As such, the word needs the Court’s protection.
  4. Therefore, the Petitioner seeks injunctive relief from the Respondent, requiring them to consider whether synonyms of “amazing” such as “astonishing,” “astounding,” “stupefying,” “awe-inspiring,” or “mind-boggling” could accurately be used instead, and if not, to choose an adjective that accurately describes the event, person, object, or situation.

I affirm under the penalties for perjury that the foregoing representations are true.

______________________
Jim Grey

Standard
Essay

Defending good grammar, sort of

Blogger Penelope Trunk wrote last year in defense of poor grammar. And then recently she did it again. She claims that it’s better to judge people by their ideas, creativity, and enthusiasm than by how well they write. The implication is that as long as they can get their ideas across, the grammar (and, by extension, punctuation and spelling) isn’t all that important. She goes on to claim that good grammar might actually hold you back in your career!

For several years I made my living as a writer and editor, so obviously I’m going to disagree. But I don’t disagree violently. I rather like some of Penelope’s arguments. She just applies them with a bit too heavy of a hand.

Back when I edited other people’s words for my supper, I edited all of David Pogue’s books. (Since then, he’s become the technology columnist for the New York Times.) His copy, always clear and engaging, was a pleasure to edit. Because his books sold like mad, my bosses always gave me plenty of time to work on them.

Most of my other authors wrote B- and C-list titles, which meant I got far less time to edit them. Too bad, because none of those authors wrote as well as Pogue. So I developed a hierarchy of editing that let me do the most good with the time I had. My first pass through someone’s text fixed problems of organization and structure, making the text more expository. My second pass fixed problems of logic and fact that would confuse or mislead readers. My third pass fixed errors of syntax and style. My final pass fixed grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. I stopped editing when I ran out of time – and I seldom made it to the final pass.

Let’s be real. If a writer confuses its and it’s or writes sight for site, nobody’s going to misunderstand. And Penelope argues that the goal should be simply to get your ideas across. If I got through just the first two passes in my hierarchy, I made dramatic improvements to the text’s ability to do that. In comparison, grammar, punctuation, and spelling were just window dressing.

Penelope also condemns impeccable grammar as the product of “demented, perfectionist thinking.” As a recovering perfectionist, I can say with some authority that for most tasks, perfection is at best a waste of time and at worst pathological. Anything you do can always be done better, but past some point the effort to make it better isn’t worth the return. Unless you’re disarming a bomb, good enough is just right.

But I can’t go all the way with Penelope and say that grammar doesn’t matter. After all, it gives us the tools to make sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting. I have to think Penelope isn’t opposed to clarity and interestingness, but rather to needless attention to detail.

The trick, then, is in determining the point past which polish doesn’t pay, and that depends entirely on what you’re writing and who will read it. If you’re writing something fast for your friends, like a text message or a quick e-mail, type it, send it, and don’t worry about it. At the other end of the spectrum stands high literature, which deserves your utmost effort – and which, sorry to say, you are probably not writing. For everything in between, make the right reasonable effort to get it right, and then stop. Reread that letter to the editor or proposal to your boss and fix what you find. Hire someone to edit your resume or business plan or any other document that may form your first or only impression. But then if a grammar, punctuation, or spelling mistake slips through, let the brilliance of your ideas outshine it.

I may sweat the details too much on this blog, but I write it because I love to hear from you. Just like I loved doing my morning radio show for a handful of listeners.

Standard