Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The death of conversational voice?

My writing students have been challenging my rule about using conversational language. If you don't say it, don't write it, I say. They charge that it dumbs down the writing. They don't have any problem with words like utilize, obliderate or gargantuan. A gave them a long list of such words to use in sentences. We'll see what I get.

In the meantime, I see wordsmith Jan Freeman in the Globe agrees with them.

 Is “untimely death” banned because it implies regret (which might not be warranted) or because the editor thinks no death is “timely”? Is perished forbidden because we’re supposed to use died, or is passed away OK? And how are Michaels’s announcers, forbidden to say “stay tuned” or “we’ll be back,” supposed to segue to commercials? We really do need some ritual phrases to get us through the day; this seems like trying to ban “hello” and “goodbye.”

And, of course, all banned-words lists embody the authors’ prejudices, which not all readers and listeners will share. Editors hate “fled on foot” (journalese!), but to me, “ran away” sounds like what Huck Finn (or Frances the badger) did, not like the act of an escaping suspect. John McIntyre, a former copy desk czar who blogs at You Don’t Say, grumps hilariously about the seasonal horrors — “white stuff,” Grinchy crimes, and especially “ ‘tis the season.” As a former editor myself, I know what he’s talking about. But as long as I never have to write another holiday headline, I’ll gratefully accept any cliché the suffering editor serves up.

Such “don’t” lists, you might say, are themselves a cliché— a standard defense against the ever-present threat of journalistic slackerdom. But lists of taboos leave the underlying questions unasked: When does convenient shorthand become a cliché? (Opinions differ, and there’s competitive pressure; some usage watchers seem eager to be ahead of the pack in declaring a catchphrase or slang word dated.)

The Chicago memo recommends using conversational English, but whose conversation are we talking about? We all know thousands of words we rarely or never use in conversation; surely we don’t think they should all be banned from the media. But if aftermath and perish are off limits at WGN, why would intercede and jubilant be spared? (In fact, jubilant was on Bryant’s banned list, along with reliable, talented, ovation, and jeopardize.)

The call for “fresh language” is another cliché that demands a closer look. Sometimes repetition and formulaic language serve a speaker’s purpose better than novelty; sometimes the story really is the same — only the names have changed — and too much striving for originality may annoy and distract. It’s not so easy to say when a familiar turn of phrase crosses the line from “efficient” to “clichéd,” when a narrative technique is no longer streamlined but merely lazy. Writing and editing are hard, sweaty work; sweeping the “bad” words off the table may look like a bold stroke, but if the past is any guide, it’s not the way to get the job done

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