Anthropomorphism: Always a Bad Idea Outside of Fiction?

Assigning human characteristics to non-human things is a time-honored writing technique. Most writers are not only aware of and familiar with the idea of personification—describing something as a person when it definitely is not—but at some point in their educations they’ve been encouraged to use it. Countless writers have used the technique before them: Homer (“rosy-fingered dawn”) and Shakespeare (innumerable times, one of the most well-known being “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad/Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill”); but you can hardly pick up a work of fiction and not find examples. Tolkien, Fitzgerald, Roth, Atwood—take your pick of author, genre, or era. You’ll even find it in titles: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein readily comes to mind (and that example is both personification and metaphor—there’s overlap in literary technique).

There’s a similar idea called anthropomorphism (other forms: anthropomorphizing, anthropomorphization), which likewise assigns human characteristics to something not human. In fiction, this technique can come in handy. In non-fiction, especially journalism and science writing, however, not so much. In those cases, it’s long been argued that anthropomorphism is sloppy writing and bad form.

How can you tell you’re anthropomorphizing? And how can you stop doing it? Let’s take a look.

This anthropomorphic post wants to tell you something. Click to learn what.

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Fiction Master Class: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Every writer, every teacher of writing, and every person who studies writing (which of course includes editors) keeps lists: lists of the best, the worst, the most moving, the most descriptive, and so on. Many of them won’t admit this, sometimes even to themselves, but they all do it; formal and shared, or only in the head of a single individual, you can believe that these lists are there.

One of the lists that I keep—mostly informal and in my head—is of virtuouso passages in fiction, the really good stuf that a writer can look at and say, “that was impressive—how did she (or he) do that and what can I learn from it?” A casual reader might barely notice these passages and only vaguely remember them as part of a larger “good read.” Or might gloss over them completely because they blend in so well with the rest of the text, or because the purpose they serve isn’t obvious in the immediate context and only becomes clear when the work is looked at as a whole.

Some of the passages on my personal list are well known to readers and writers. For example, since I first cracked the pages on One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Maquez, I have completely agreed that its first sentence is one of the greatest ever written in English (no small feat for a book written in Spanish—most readers know the Gregory Rabassa translation). That particular line makes many short lists, but what often goes overlooked is that this is only the first splash in a cascade: the book has not only one of the best first sentences, but also one of the best (enormous) first paragraphs, first chapters, and, arguably, first three chapters in literature.

Another passage I’ve always been impressed by makes up the bulk of Chapter 3 of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; it begins when Mustapha Mond makes his first appearance and runs through the end of that chapter. It’s a tour de force of postmodern narrative—again, no small feat, in this case because it was written in 1931 while the beginning of postmodernism is generally pegged a couple of decades later.

To note just one more example, I’m a huge fan of a short passage in A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes, which delves startlingly into the non-human nature of children. Less than 800 words long, it is third-person narrative insight at its finest; who can argue against the wisdom that “babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates”? (The text of this novel is available on line, but has numerous annoying ocr errors.)

A writer who can’t (or won’t) learn from passages like these isn’t doing it right.

Do it right and click here.

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WOTY (Word of the Year) – 2018 Edition, Part 2

Earlier this month the 2018 Word of the Year (WOTY) season wrapped up with two final announcements: the spree of candidates and winners from the American Dialect Society and the final selection from Australia’s Macquarie dictionary. (If you missed the earlier summary, covering all the important 2018 WOTY announcments aside from these two, click here.)

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The American Dialect Society (ADS) puts out a buffet of candidate words and phrases in a variety of categories (the full press release is here). It’s almost always a good read, although some times it feels like they’re too thorough, if that’s possible.

Their overall winner this year: tender-age shelter (with variants tender-age facility and tender-age camp).

The term is a dangerously euphemistic concoction used by the dangerously concocted Trump administration to describe the facilities used to house young children in government detention. This followed from the administration’s tactic of referring to children under the age of 12 as “tender age detainees” after separating them from their immigrant parents.

This choice surprised me: I somehow had not come across it (which made me wonder what I was doing in late June that kept me from following the news). While my first reaction toward it as a WOTY choice was “…that’s a weird one…,” the more I looked into it the more it seems like a good choice.

You’ll find a specific use of “tender age children” by an administration official, as well as conficting definitions, in this article. I’m not completely sure that the construction “tender age shelter” was ever uttered or committed to paper by anyone in government, but it quickly appeared in circulated references to this policy. The particular construction may in fact have been produced in news accounts, although the intent was clear and the creation of the phrase was both implied by administration officials and inevitable once they started using certain euphemisms to avoid discussing the plainly visible reality.

The phrase is especially interesting, from a vocabulary perspective, because it seems to have sprung into existence on June 19th of last year: I’ve done a reasonable (but not exhaustive) amount of research, and can find no record of the phrase before that date.

There are, as usual, a number of other interesting nuggets on the ADS list. “X strong” reaches the list late: I’ve been watching the use (and overuse) of this formulation since at least 2011 when it was popularized in my region (New England) through the use of “Vermont Strong” in the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Irene. It reached cliché status a couple of years later with “Boston Strong.” “Individual 1” is another choice that hits the mark, as is “white-caller crime.”

deepfake” I like, but it probably won’t get much use; novel words that sound a little too close to other recent coinages (in this case “deep state“) usually wither due to the confusion of the terms. On the other hand, I don’t particularly like “self-care,” but that one probably has staying power. It already seems pervasive. You’ll notice a few other terms on their lists that were selected or nominated by other sources, which is usually how the WOTY game shakes out. I invite you to scan through their finalists and winners: you might find some of the others interesting or worth digging deeper.

Rounding out the 2018 WOTY lists (finally!), Macquarie—which gives both a committee selection and a popular choice—tapped “Me Too” (committee) and “single use” (popular). The sudden attention to single-use (it was also Collins’ WOTY) leaves me scratching my head. But Me Too is a good choice and, in the same way that everyone else should have been embarassed by not having nationalism on their shortlists, every WOTY-selecting group that entirely overlooked Me Too should hang their heads in shame. It’s an obvious and meaningful choice, and the fact that it was ignored by most American sources but elevated by Australians is doubly embarassing. You’ve got some ground to make up after other selections in recent years, but “good on you, Macquarie.” (Did I do that right?) Browse the rest of their WOTY postings: their other candidates were generally good ones.

So there you have it: the conclusion of the 2018 WOTY wrap up. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I’ve already started my list of potential WOTY candidates for 2019 with “shutdown,” but I suspect that by the time WOTY season rolls around again, that one will be all but forgotten.

I’ve got a number of posts on interesting topics that have been backing up the past couple of months, and hope to get to them soon, so check back once in a while to see what’s new.

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WOTY (Word of the Year) – 2018 Edition

The holiday season wouldn’t be in full swing here on The Better Editor blog without a post (or two, or three…) on the yearly antics of dictionaries around the world declaring their “Words of the Year.” Regular readers know that I have a love-hate relationship with the whole Word of the Year (WOTY) idea, but that I can’t help writing about it every December. It’s a lexicographical itch that has to be scratched. I always spend time wondering about which hat to wear when I approach it: enthusiastic supporter? philosophical observer? angry pedant? Or my usual default: dismissive grouser? I try to have something fresh in the approach each year (but don’t always succeed).

Often, I keep my own informal list during the year, but in 2018 I only took note of one word (“weaponize”) as a likely candidate. But even without a list, I expected the most likely (and best) WOTY candidates would come from broad categories of words: political, ideological, and legal terminology. You know words in these areas: collusion, redacted, asylum, immunity, impeachment. The list goes on. As an exercise, you could have scanned
headlines and the first paragraphs of page-one stories each day during the year and come up with a list of a couple of dozen continuously recurring words to succintly describe the tone of the year. I would definitely feel disappointed in any list that didn’t recognize this sort of language.

Where did the main WOTY players come down for 2018? Let’s take a look.

Click here for more WORDS!

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American Media: Stop Condoning the Corruption of Our Language

If you’re like me, there are a lot of things in the world that disturb you: economic issues, environmental issues, social issues, political issues; the list is long. If you have any interest at all in the ongoing survival of humanity, let alone its current condition, these things should be in your awareness. The old saying ‘if you’re not angry you’re not paying attention’ has never been more true.

My interest in written English, however, means that an additional set of issues causes me concern. I’m not talking about the (more or less) trivial: Do you use the serial or list comma? Do you approve of singular “they”? Is the abominable “amongst” acceptable to you?

No, I’m talking about the outright corruption of language, through any of several means, which ultimately contributes to (if not causes) a breakdown of society.

To which you might understandably say: “What? You went from language to the breakdown of society pretty fast there. I’m not buying it.” Fair enough. But the path to breakdown, while it can be indirect and can take a lot of time, is clear. I’ll get to that in a moment: first, let’s focus on what’s got me riled up this week.

If ‘click’ still means what I think it does, then click here for more.

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