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Reflections on language by… David Foster Wallace

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus included sections labelled ‘reflections’ by some notable writers, including Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Joshua Ferris. In the second of an occasional series looking at these reflections, we’ve excerpted David Foster Wallace’s thoughts about various words. All the extracts below are by David Foster Wallace, and can be found in the US synonyms section of OxfordDictionaries.com.

All of (under all)

Other than as an ironic idiom for ‘no more than’ (e.g., sex with Edgar lasts all of twenty seconds), does all of have any legit uses? The answer is a qualified, complicated, and personally embarrassed yes. Here’s the story. An irksome habit of many student writers is to just automatically stick an of between all and any noun that follows — all of the firemen posed for the calendarshe gave the disease to all of her friends — and I have spent nearly a decade telling undergrads to abjure this habit, for two reasons. The first is that an excess of of’s is one of the surest signs of flabby or maladroit writing, and the second is that the usage is often wrong. Over and over, in conference and class, I have promulgated the following rule: Except for the ironic-idiom case, the only time it’s correct to use all of is when the adjective phrase is followed by a pronoun— all of them got pink-eyeI wanted Edgar to have all of me — unless, however, the relevant pronoun is possessive, in which case you must again omit the of, as in all my relatives despise Edgar. Only a few weeks ago, however, I learned (from a bright student who had gotten annoyed enough at my constant hectoring to start poring over usage guides in the hope of finding something I’d been wrong about that she could raise her hand at just the right moment in class and embarrass me with … which she did, and I was, and deserved it—there’s nothing worse than a pedant who’s wrong) that there’s actually one more complication to the first part of the rule. With all plus a noun, it turns out that a medial of is required if the noun is possessive, as in all of Edgar’s problems stem from his childhood or all of Dave’s bombast came back to haunt him that day. I doubt now I’ll ever forget this.

As

A lot of American students like using as to mean since or because, because they think it makes their prose look classier (as Dostoevsky is so firmly opposed to nihilism, it should come as no surprise that he often presents his novels’ protagonists with moral dilemmas). For really knowledgeable readers, the causal as is acceptable only in British English, and even there it’s OK only if the dependent as-clause comes at the start of the sentence, since if it comes in the middle the as can look temporal and cause confusion (e.g., I declined her offer as I was on my way to the bank already).

Bland

Bland was originally used of people to mean ‘suave, smooth, unperturbed, soothingly pleasing’ (which has survived in blandish and blandishments), and of things to mean ‘soft, mild, pleasantly soothing, etc.’ Only incidentally did it mean ‘dull, insipid, flavorless.’ Today, though, bland nearly always has a pejorative tinge. Outside of one semi-medical idiom (the ulcerous CEO was placed on a bland diet), bland now tends to imply that whatever’s described was trying to be more interesting, piquant, stirring, forceful, magnetic, or engaging than it actually ended up being.

Critique

I went to college in the mid-1980s, and there I got taught that there’s no such verb as to critique. The professors (both around 50) who hammered this into me explained that to criticize meant ‘to judge the merits and defects of, to analyze, to evaluate’ and that critique (n.) was simply ‘a specific critical commentary or review.’ Twenty years later, though, dictionaries’ primary definition of to criticize is usually ‘to find fault with.’ Even for educated readers, the verb is apt to have negative connotations that it didn’t in 1985. This is why some usage authorities now consider to critique to be OK; they argue that it can minimize confusion by denoting the neutral, scholarly-type assessment that used to be what to criticize meant. Here’s the thing, though — it’s still only some usage experts who accept to critique. Dictionaries’ usage panels are usually now split about 50-50 on sentences like After a run-through, the playwright and director both critiqued the actor’s delivery. And it’s not just authorities: a decent percentage of American readers, especially those educated before 1990, still find to critiqueeither incorrect or annoying. Why alienate these readers if you don’t have to? If you’re worried that criticize will seem too deprecatory, you can say evaluate, explicate, analyze, judge … or you can always use the old bury-the-main-verb trick and do offer a critique of, submit a critique of, etc.

Feckless, effete (under feckless)

A totally great adjective. One reason that the slippage in the meaning of effete is OK is that we can use feckless to express what effete used to mean (‘depleted of vitality, washed out, exhausted’). Feckless primarily means ‘deficient in efficacy, lacking vigor or determination, feeble’; but it can also mean ‘careless, profligate, irresponsible.’ The word appears most often now in connection with wastoid youths, bloated bureaucracies — anyone who’s culpable for his own haplessness. The great thing about using feckless is that it lets you be extremely dismissive and mean without sounding mean; you just sound witty and classy. The word’s also fun to use because of the soft-e assonance and the k sound — and the triply assonant noun form — fecklessness — is even more fun.

Focus

Focus is now the noun of choice for expressing what people used to mean by concentration (Sampras’s on-court focus was phenomenal) and emphasis (Our focus is on satisfying the needs of our customers). Adjectivized, it seems often to serve as an approving synonym for driven or monomaniacalHe’s the most focused warehouse manager we’ve ever had. As a verb, it seems isomorphic with the older to concentrateFocus, people! ; The Democrats hope that the campaign will focus on the economy; We need to focus on finding solutions instead of blaming each other ; etc. Notice, with respect to those last two sample sentences, how the verb phrase to focus on can take as its object either a thing-noun (‘economy’) or an -ing word (‘finding’), and how its grammar is slightly different in these two cases. With a noun, to focus on means ‘to concentrate attention or effort on,’ i.e., the direct object is built right into the verb phrase; but with -ing words it means ‘to direct toward a particular goal’ — there’s always a direct object like ‘attention/efforts/energies’ that’s suppressed but understood, and the -ing word functions as an indirect object. Given the speed with which to focus has supplanted to concentrate, it’s a little surprising that nobody objects to its somewhat jargony New Age feel — but nobody seems to. Maybe this is because the word is only one of many film and drama terms that have lately entered mainstream usage, e.g., to foreground (= to feature, to give top priority to); to background (= to downplay, to relegate to the back burner); scenario (= an outline of some hypothetical sequence of events), and dialogue.

Impossibly

This is one of those adverbs that’s formed from an adjective and can modify only modifiers, never verbs. Using these sorts of adverbs — impossibly fast, extraordinarily yummy, irreducibly complex — is an upscale educated speech tic that translates well to writing. Not only can the adverbs be as colorful/funny/snarky as you like, but the device is a neat way to up the formality of your prose without sacrificing personality; it makes the writer sound like an actual person, albeit a classy one. The big caveat is that you can’t use these special-adverb-plus-adjective constructions more than once every few sentences or your prose starts to look like it’s trying too hard.

Individual

As a noun, this word has one legitimate use, which is to distinguish a single person from some larger group: one of the enduring oppositions of British literature is that between the individual and society; or boy, she’s a real individual. I don’t like it as a synonym for person despite the fact that much legal, bureaucratic, and public-statement prose uses it that way — it looms large in turgid writing like law-enforcement personnel apprehended the individual as he was attempting to exit the premisesIndividual for person and an individual for someone are pretentious, deadening puff-words; eschew them.

Mucous

Mucous, an adjective, is not synonymous with the noun mucus. It’s worth noting this not only because the two words are fun but because so many people don’t know the difference. Mucus means the unmentionable stuff itself. Mucous refers to (1) something that makes or secretes mucus, as in The next morning, his mucous membranes were in rocky shape indeed, or (2) something that consists of or resembles mucus, as in The mucous consistency of its eggs kept the diner’s breakfast trade minimal.

Myriad

As an adjective, myriad means ‘an indefinitely large number [of something]’ (the Local Group comprises myriad galaxies) or ‘made up of a great many diverse elements’ (the myriad plant life of Amazonia). As a noun, it’s used with an article and of to mean ‘a large number’ (the new CFO faced a myriad of cash-flow problems). What’s odd is that some authorities consider only the adjectival myriad correct—there’s about a 50-50 chance that a given copyeditor will query a myriad of — even though the noun usage has a much longer and more distinguished history. It’s really only in nineteenth-century poetry that myriad starts showing up as an adjective. So myriad‘s situation right now is confusing. It’s tempting simply to recommend avoiding the noun usage so that there’s no chance a reader will be bugged. The truth, though, is that any reader who’s bugged by a myriad of is both persnickety and wrong — and you can usually rebut sniffy teachers, copyeditors, et al. by directing them to Coleridge’s “Myriad myriads of lives teemed forth ….”

Noma (under canker)

This medical noun signifies an especially icky ulcerous infection of the mouth or genitals. Because the condition most commonly strikes children living in abject poverty/squalor, it’s a bit like scrofula. And just as the adjective scrofulous has gradually extended its sense to mean ‘corrupt, degenerate, gnarly,’ so nomal seems ripe for similar extension; it could serve as a slightly obscure or erudite synonym for ‘scrofulous, repulsive, pathetically gross, grossly pathetic’ … you get the idea.

Privilege

Even though some dictionaries OK it, the verb to privilege is currently used only in a particular English subdialect that might be called academese. Example: The patriarchal Western canon privileges univocal discourse situated within established contexts over the polyphonic free play of decentered utterance. (Yes: it’s often that ghastly.) Contemporary academese originated in literary and social theory but has now metastasized throughout much of the humanities. There is exactly one rhetorical situation in which you’d want to use to privilege, to situate, or to interrogate+ some abstract noun phrase, or pretty much any transitivized-verb construction that’s three times longer than it needs to be — this is in a university course taught by a professor so thoroughly cloistered, insecure, or stupid as to believe that academese constitutes intelligent writing. A required course, one that you can’t switch out of. In any other situation, run very fast the other way.

Utilize

This is a puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter. I tell my students that using utilize makes you seem either pompous or so insecure that you’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart. The same is true for the noun utilization, and for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for home, for indicate as used for say, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: ‘Formal writing’ does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

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