When Looking For The Right Words, Beware Of ‘Imagined Elegance’

“Will someone please tell me what is wrong with the word ‘happened?’ ‘Transpired, transpired, transpired.’ It’s far more irritating than ‘begs the question’ and that’s saying a lot.”

After getting that email, I opened Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. There’s a wonderful phrase in the book’s entry about “transpire”:

“Not to be used in the sense of ‘happen,’ ‘come to pass.’ Many writers so use it (usually when groping toward imagined elegance), but their usage finds little support in the Latin ‘breathe across or through.’ “

“Imagined elegance.”

Or, choosing a highfalutin word and sounding stuffy.

Or, as Mark Twain put it, using “a $5 word when a 50-cent word will do.”

We’ve heard from emailers about many other words and phrases that can take you down the path to imagined elegance. They include:

– Incentivize
– Esoteric
– Going forward
– Ubiquitous [Which I originally misspelled as ubitquitous!]
– Epicenter
– Comes amid

You can surely  think of others.

There are times to use $5 words. Linton Weeks is a clear, concise writer. But he slips one or two $5 choices into many of his pieces. In writing about “when Thanksgiving was weird,” he described the costumes that Americans once put on while celebrating that holiday:

“Some Americans wore masks that made fun of people of other nations. … More refined revelers donned soft, ghostly, painted veils made of gauzy mesh that both disguised, and improved … a person’s appearance.”

“Donned” is the perfect word. In a post about the past, it feels just right.

But there is a real — not imagined — elegance to clear, simple story-telling.

Some recent examples:

– Howard Berkes’ “Delinquent Mines” reports.

– Ailsa Chang’s pre-election piece, “Sen. Mitch McConnell Has More Than Most Riding On Midterm Elections.”

– Dan Charles’ “Of Carrots And Kids: Healthy School Lunches That Don’t Get Tossed.”

– Linda Holmes’ “ ‘Grape Salad’ Is Not Minnesotan, And Other Lessons In Cultural Mapmaking.”

– Joe Shapiro’s “Guilty And Charged” series.

– Laura Sullivan’s “Red Cross” reports.

– Gregory Warner’s “Guarding The Ebola Border” story.

Every Newscast has a strong example as well. Jennifer Ludden’s report this week on a San Francisco law that mandates predictable work schedules is one. She packed a lot of information into a tight spot:

“Under the new law, companies must post schedules two weeks in advance … pay a penalty for changes made after that … and they must give part-time workers more hours before hiring someone else. Studies show the number of part-timers who would rather be full time has doubled since 2008. Chaotic schedules make it hard to arrange child-care, take classes, or hold a second job. A co-sponsor of San Francisco’s legislation is now in the state assembly and plans to propose a bill there. Advocates are also pushing for predictable scheduling laws in other cities.”

We can question some words in the pieces cited above. But the stories are mostly carried along by short, punchy sentences and good reporting. As you listen or read, you don’t stop to wonder what something means or to sigh at a malapropism (now there’s a $5 word!). The elegance of the stories is not imaginary.

Related:Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips.”

(Memmos; Dec. 2, 2014)

December 2, 2014

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