Words. We can’t live with them, but we can’t live without them.
By which I mean that words are absolutely necessary for human interaction on all levels, even unspoken ones—human perception and behavior are so thoroughly intertwined with language that we don’t even experience thought or emotion without using language in our internal monologues and dialogues (try it some time and see how long you can go without processing things into language).
Yet we frequently overuse words, spewing them out when we don’t need to, with the effect that each additional word doesn’t provide new information and clarity, but instead takes away from the meaning already stated. If words were paint in this sense, then more words are unneeded additional coats, applied sloppily and haphazardly and ruining the job already done; if words were woodworker’s chisels skillfully carving a thing of beauty from an ordinary block of wood, then extra words awkwardly and carelessly chop away at the fine work already executed, reducing it to a crude parody.
We can of course, as with all things, take it too far. “Omit needless words” is one of the most commonly repeated mantras of received wisdom in writing, dating at least to the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style. It earns a section heading there, in a slim volume that includes only about two dozen. Like every other piece of writing advice, it shouldn’t be followed too zealously; after all, taken to its logical conclusion, there are a great many writers who simply shouldn’t put pen to paper. “Omit needless words” is still generally good advice, but if you instead prioritize avoiding clichés, following the rule of “if you’ve heard it before, don’t write it,” you’ll tend to kill two birds with one…rule.
But the trend in contemporary American writing and speech seems to be not to omit needless words, but to add words needlessly. This isn’t something I track meticulously, but when I see it going on, I notice. Here are a few that I’ve jotted down recently: some are phrases I’ve encountered for years and they keep grating; some are new and grate just as much.
existential crisis – used for crisis. The modifier existential should be used to show that something is a matter of life or death, of existence or nonexistence. Most crises are not existential.
elephant in the living room – used for elephant in the room. The point of the original is that people are talking around a point that is obvious to everyone, but which no one wants to address. The living room modification was used to suggest that somehow the elephant was interfering with the normal use of the space. Had I been able to reach through the radio to smack the speaker upside the head, I would have.
sea change – used for change. Many writers will be familiar with this phrase from Shakespeare (The Tempest). Its misuse has been bemoaned for decades. The precise definition is arguable, but most agree that a sea change should be something deeply transformative, rendering the original (item, concept, practice, etc.) into something unrecognizable when compared to the changed product. When you use sea change instead of change, chances are you’re using it badly.
tectonic shift – used for shift. Things shift all the time. Do they shift tectonically—with the sudden, violent, often unexpected, effectively irreversible force of an earthquake? Has the ground beneath our feet shifted, and it isn’t about to shift back? Not usually.
underlying problem – used for problem. Sure, there are many underlying problems in the world. But do all problems have to be underlying? No, even when some are thorny, intractable, insurmountable, or otherwise interesting. The modifier should be saved for a complex situation, when there are multiple problems, but none can be successfully tackled until the deeper underlying problem has been dealt with.
thick as thieves – used for thick. Here’s another one where the speaker was spared violence by me only because their words came over the airwaves. Seriously, folks: use this to describe how tightly bound and close-knit a friendship is, or perhaps the intimate ties in a small community. Don’t use it to describe the texture of a stew, or the solidity of an object, or the density of your skull.
Phrases with extra modifiers aren’t the only problem. Some single words can be over-wordy: I challenge anyone to provide a justification for ever using “oftentimes” over “often.” Some sources find a hair to split with these two, noting that one denotes a periodic event while the other better covers the continuous. I don’t buy it. In practice the words are indistinguishable, except that one is a frequent over-wordy substitution for the other.
Why do we do this? Why do modern English speakers gravitate to the over-wordy when we could go in the other direction? I have thoughts on the reasons, mostly rampant speculation, and I’ll keep most of those to myself today. I also have some suspicion that this phenomenon is cyclical, that the tendency of English speakers to use longer words, extra syllables, and so on, ebbs and flows like the tide, but with less regularity. Perhaps we’re moving up to the high tide mark today, and the trend will reverse. I can at least hope this is true.
But even when you study an issue closely and think you know what might be going on, there’s always something new to make a curious person think more deeply. One of those new things crossed my desk a few of weeks ago.
(Ignore that fact that the author of the Science article equated two completely unrelated “bits”—the binary digit of computing and the uncertainty-reducing measure of syllables in linguistics.)
That research is interesting because it suggests that human languages, despite their many differences, are very similar in the speed at which they deliver information. That’s not a huge surprise, and had already been suspected, but, as some of those interviewed point out, it hadn’t been empirically shown before.
How does this relate to the current infatuation of American English speakers with extra syllables? Again, it’s speculation on my part, but this research hints to me that the “problem” (yes, I’ll “scare quote” it) with American English speakers and their multisyllabic fixation drifts to one of two main causes. Idea One would be that American English speakers are now speaking more quickly than speakers of other languages, but, since the amount of information they can deliver in a unit of time is capped, they’ve adopted the tactic of adding extra words and syllables to fill the space (even though those extra words add no information). Idea Two would be that Americans are speaking more efficiently, so regardless of speed they compress more information into a unit of time…but then they keep speaking anyway, and need to fill the gaps with something.
Of course, both of those reasons might be wrong. Americans might just like to hear themselves speak, or they might continue to suffer from the sad delusion that using longer words makes one sound more intelligent. It doesn’t.
Is there any advice to offer here? The best thing I can suggest is that you simply try to make yourself more aware of the words coming out of your mouth, or the ones you’re putting on the page. Understand each one and make it count. It’s easy to forget this basic premise. When that concept hovers over all your language use, though, it sharpens things, and all sorts of other good writing habits fall into place behind it. This will inevitably make you a better writer (and speaker)—and it’s hard to complain about that.