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Junk English
by Ken Smith ’80

merican English is in a bad way. It didn’t get sick overnight. It probably isn’t going to get better any time soon. I was tired, however, of hearing phrases such as, “save as much as 50 percent or more,” and of reading sentences such as, “He’s spent his career counterintuiting convention.” I was tired of yelling at my television and of pounding my fist into the dashboard of my car. Anger is never satisfying. So I thought that if I could write a little book, fill it with examples of idiomatic nonsense that everyone could recognize and relate to—and laugh at—then maybe that would help.

So I wrote Junk English.

I am not a grammarian or a linguist or a lexicographer. I’m just a writer. I make plenty of Junk English mistakes myself. For example, in the introduction to the book I describe it as “a broad overview of an encyclopedic subject.”

“Broad overview” is an example of what I label—about sixty pages later—a Parasitic Intensifier. It is a byproduct of our age of hype. Overview, a word that once was strong enough to stand on its own, nowadays doesn’t seem strong at all. So we attach a parasite—broad—to it, which further sucks the vigor out of overview and makes us have to use two words to say what we used to be able to say with one.

I read that introduction a dozen times before it went to the printer, and I didn’t see the mistake. If I missed that, you can guess that I have a hard time discussing appositive phrases or improper antecedents, or explaining the difference between a gerund and a participle.

Still, the beauty—if one can call it that—of Junk English is that one does not need a Ph.D. in English to recognize it, and to recognize that it is bad.

I knew that Junk English would be a small book and that it would only have room for the worst examples. I had to find out what those were. So for six months I lost myself in newspaper circulars, e-mail spam, the advertising inserts in my phone bill. I watched shopping channels and politicians. I listened to talk radio and business executives. I had to pay attention. That was painful, as you can imagine.

In the end, patterns became clear. Certain words in the English lexicon are abused continually: factor, focus, function, formulate, impact, quality, value. Other abuses naturally aggregate into categories. I gave many of these unusual titles—not typically found in books about language—in the hope that they would be memorable. Here are several examples:

Fatass Phrases
These phrases are anchored at the end by abstract nouns. They replace simple words, and their only effect is to lengthen whatever it is that we’re trying to express. Once recognized, they reveal their bulk readily.
  the thought process = thinking
  in a positive fashion = approvingly
  in the very near future = soon
  in a working mode = working
  on a daily basis = daily

Artificial Vocabulary
This vast category exists because we want to impress others, and because some of us mistakenly feel that the way to accomplish this is to say ordinary things in extraordinary ways.
  expeditiously = fast
  specificities = details
  draconian = harsh
  virtually = almost
  marginalize = weaken
  conceptualization = idea
  documentation = paperwork

Cheapened Words
Some words are powerful because few things meet their standards. Cheapened Words were once that way, but are no more. They have been weakened by overuse and by being attached to unworthy subjects. When every executive is a visionary and every product is revolutionary or innovative, the words lose their punch. Shocking, unique, crisis, hero and classic no longer impress. Even meaningful has been so overused that it no longer has much meaning.

The use of re-verbs is popular in organizations where it is dangerous to think or invent, but permissible to rethink or reinvent.

No grammatical apology can excuse abominations. Someone, somewhere, thought that he or she could awe others if he or she substituted a newly invented word for one that already existed. Many of us now use these neologisms ourselves.
  mentee = trainee
  impactful = effective
  exceedance = excess
  dimensionalize = define
  efforting = attempting
  mindshare = attention

Add-A-Word and Add-A-Syllable
Why use just one word when you can use two or three? Why use two syllables when you can use four or five? Filling space without cause may dazzle some, but it is best to expand your thoughts with insight, not extra letters.
  subject matter expert = expert
  business entity = business
  skill set = skills
  time frame = time
  weather conditions = weather
  commentate = comment
  orientate = orient
  comfortability = comfort
  competency = competence
  factoid = fact

We live in a Golden Age of euphemisms, and that is not good. Euphemisms are used principally to disguise. The popularity of these gimmicks suggests that there are many things in our world with which we are not proud.
  document retention policy = document shredding policy
  forward-looking statements = guesses
  longer hours = more hours
  unconventional business practices = lying, fraud
  information management = censorship
  reducing head count = firing people
  negative growth = decline, loss
  courtesy offer = junk mail
  corporate underwriter = advertiser
  personal assistant = servant
  office space = cubicle
  social unrest = rioting
  gaming = gambling
  pre-owned = used
  investigational medication = experimental drug
  not optimal = bad

Mongrels are formed by a clumsy crunching together of two words, making one. A few, such as dramady, attempt to describe new things, but most merely camouflage old things that are unsavory.
  advertorial = advertisement
  guesstimate = guess
  infomercial = commercial
  nutraceuticals = drugs
  shoppertainment = selling

Threadbare Phrases
We all have a weakness for clichés. While their meaning is clear, they are poor substitutes for careful expression. If we want people to communicate with us thoughtfully, we should extend to them the same courtesy.
  a level playing field = fairness
  a no-brainer = obvious
  hit the nail right on the head = is correct
  on the same page = agree
  outside the box = differently
  pushing the envelope = daring
  the lion’s share = most
  the whole nine yards = everything
  wake-up call = warning

These space-wasters add no information or shade of meaning beyond that of a single word. They are fun to spot—at least until we realize how often we are guilty of using them.
  ATM machine
  done deal
  foreign imports
  free gift
  IRA account
  past history
  terrible tragedy
  time period
  true facts

Invisible Diminishers
Adjectives and adverbs can inconspicuously reduce the promise of powerful words. Invisible Diminishers are popular with advertising copywriters, who drop them in front of assertions such as perfect and foolproof that otherwise could not be used.
  almost always
  nearly flawless
  highly unique
  virtually any
  the most overall
  interior room in its class
  99% pure

Too Cool
Adults often make fun of teenage lingo because it favors style over precision. We would laugh less if we looked objectively at our own affected jargon.
  impact = affect
  brainstorm = think
  de-install = remove
  fiber media = paper
  metric[s] = standard, guideline
  transparency = clarity, openness

Nouns As Verbs
There will always be new inventions, conditions and events that need new nouns to describe them. New actions, however, are rare, so there is little need for new verbs. You wouldn’t know that from the many new verbs in our language that once were exclusively nouns.
  author = write
  broker = make, arrange
  document = demonstrate, support, record, chronicle
  leverage = use
  mandate = require
  mentor = train
  partner = collaborate
  transition = change, move
  warehouse = store

Warfare English
The linguistic mendacity of Warfare English—a special category of euphemistic language—is used by politicians to shield us from the truth of war. There are, sadly, many examples.
  detainee = prisoner
  enclosure = cell
  incident, incursion, interdiction = attack, assault
  military action, military intervention = war, attack, assault
  a military solution = war
  conflict = war
  degrade = bomb
  collateral damage = wounded or dead civilians
   mop-up operation = shooting people

Junk English jewels
Certain words are so much a part of Junk English that they merit their own entry. Two examples:

This is the most overused, unnecessary word in contemporary American English. Writers should strike it out whenever they use it; speakers should catch themselves before they say it and say something else. In most instances it can simply be eliminated, in others it can be replaced by standard English words—ready, prepared, alert, vigilant, assertive, aggressive, decisive, authoritative, active—and done so with greater clarity of expression.

This word is now a synonym for problem and an example of good intentions gone bad. At first it was used out of politeness, to spare a person’s feelings. Fat people had weight issues. Couples who threw cookware at each other had relationship issues. But the word has of late been embraced by persons and organizations whose goal is not to spare our feelings, but to evade responsibility. Thus the word problem has vanished from the English lexicon. Does smoking kill people? That’s a problem—but it’s called a serious health issue. Did we miss important clues before the attacks of September 11? That’s a problem—but it’s called a significant security issue. Fear not, these issues will be addressed—unlike problems, which would have to be solved.

The abuse of a word like issue is a good example of how Junk English is not really about grammar, but about human frailty.

Some people will always be lazy or sloppy in their use of language; Samuel Johnson complained about it over 200 years ago. And the deliberate abuse of language is as old as politics and business and war. Citing precedent, however, is no excuse, particularly if that precedent is bad—and Junk English is certainly bad. So why do we tolerate clumsiness and humbug? Why do we incorporate it into our language?

Words can sometimes be magical. They can make the unimpressive seem important, and that can be useful. Two of the most common writing assignments encountered by adults, for example, are résumés and performance reviews. Who gets rewarded? The person who states the facts, simply and plainly? Or the person who inflates the facts with hot air?

When everyone else stretches his or her language, we stretch ours. As a consequence, we’ve become so familiar with bulked-up English that we use it automatically, even when we’re not trying to impress anyone. We say and write utilize instead of use, medication instead of medicine, dialogue instead of discussion. Our use of such language is increasing; it has to. The more excessive language becomes, the more excessive it must become to have the same effect.

Conversely, Junk English is also the language of anesthesia. Many people believe that the safest thing to say is nothing at all, and that fuzzy abstractions and broad phrasing can hide a lack of substance and lull an audience into indifference.

Here’s an example: “Company XYZ is determined to promote constant attention on current procedures of transacting business focusing emphasis on innovative ways to better, if not supercede, the expectations of quality.”

When I began writing Junk English I tried to break down sentences like this into plain language, but I couldn’t. I was left with nothing but air. The sentence doesn’t say anything false. It doesn’t say anything at all. Its words have been carefully chosen so that they no longer convey any information; they just provide an illusion of information.

What makes all of this scary is that communication develops from habit. The more that we are exposed to Junk English and the more comfortable we are with it, the less comfortable we are with plain language. And if we are only comfortable with talking and writing in superficial clichés and empty rhetoric, then we, too, become superficial and empty, until the only thing that moves us is the sensational, and then the super-sensational, and then the ultra-sensational. We lose the ability to sift evidence, to evaluate an argument, to be critical thinkers, to uphold our end of a democracy.

We encounter Junk English so frequently, and it comes at us from so many different directions, that we are becoming deaf and blind to the emptiness and ugliness of much of what we read and hear and say.

My critics—and I have a few—insist that language changes, and that branding certain language “junk” thwarts the natural evolution of American English. Our language does change; it is alive with new words and phrases like gaydar and road rage and emoticon that may not be graceful, but that are useful and expressive.

But much of Junk English is not natural. It is forced. It is contrived. It is blatantly artificial. It is a corruption of the purpose of language, not an unaffected change.

In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote The American Crisis. Here is how he began it:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

That’s 41 words, 33 of them one syllable. Compare that to this, written by a modern-day Thomas Paine. It is no less passionate or sincere, but observe the language:
“Millions of us innately recognize that globalization does not address the issues of grassroots democratic processes, but rather pontificates inevitabilities while proceeding with building institutions for top-down public-private partnerships to control and regulate the behaviors of the global masses.”

Again, 41 words. But this person has lost his battle before he even opened his mouth, because he thinks like a bureaucracy or a corporation, not like a human being.
We’re all starting to think like bureaucracies and corporations now. We’re forgetting that we’re human, and that simple language is more effective than empty, overblown rhetoric.

If we are to survive in a complicated world, we need to stop talking, and writing, and thinking in shallow and sloppy terms. We need to recognize that we do not help ourselves by using language to hide problems; we only make it more difficult for us to see them and to fix them.

Junk English was my attempt to say some of this in 144 little pages. I hope that the idea of Junk English sticks in your brain, and that the next time you have an urge to write or say “the fact of the matter is,” or concretize, or polyattentiveness—a little pain shoots through your skull. And you cry, “Oooh! Junk English!” And you stop.

Ken Smith ’80
, was graduated with a B.A. in Communications. His books include Ken’s Guide To The Bible, Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945–1970, Raw Deal: Horrible And Ironic Stories Of Forgotten Americans, and The New Roadside America, the last co-authored with Doug Kirby ’79.

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