On Bad Words
I hate when people use bad words. Not cursing. In fact, sometimes nothing’s more satisfying than a good “fuck.” I fully support the use of such succinct, punchy little words for emphasis. (Just for emphasis, though. One of my favorite quotes from Kurt Vonnegut’s work is that “profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.”)
Even though it’s easy to dismiss a writer as immature if his writing is more than a little peppered with obscenity, it’s not that type of writer whose diction offends me as “bad.” No, the bad words I hate are the words that are bad because they’re lazy. I hate words that are bad because they signal an author’s lack of care for the language, lack of empathy for his reader, and lack of passion for his subject.
A word is “bad” when it is unusable. When a word does nothing to further an author’s point to his readers, that word is a waste of space. Bad words like these convey nothing, waste readers’ time, and make professional editors like myself gnash our teeth in frustration.
The thing is, though, what qualifies as a “bad” word is pretty subjective. I’m not a fan of adverbs and adjectives in most formal contexts, and even get annoyed when they’re sprinkled too liberally in a book I’m reading for leisure. But in my own blogs? In informal correspondences with friends? I use them liberally.
As a student, it helps to have an idea of what your professors are sensitive to. You may write the best, most insightful essay ever—but because you sprinkled in a few too many “a lot”s and “utilize”s, you may blind your professor to the brilliance of your argument.
I’ve already given you a general outline of the guidelines I try to follow when writing for formal audiences (like avoiding adverbs and cliches). But it might help you in your own self-editing to go over some of my personal rules about “bad words,” which I consider to be more taboo and disgusting than any “shit” that slips into a well-phrased argument.
Bad Words (alphabetized for easy reference):
One of my dad’s favorite refrains, which he claimed to have adopted from a college professor, was “you park in a lot, you don’t write with one.” (Or something. I never really listened.) The point was, the word “lot” should only be used in reference to a parking lot, or a vacant lot, or some other physical space. The phrase “a lot” is an ugly and informal way of saying “many,” which is in itself a lazy way of avoiding specific numbers.
Any conjugation of “to be” (is, are, were, was, etc.) generally indicates the passive voice. The passive voice can be clunky, as it works to avoid identifying a direct actor for its verbs. Unless you’re writing a scientific report where it’s necessary to omit the active participants from your discussion of the experiment and to appear unbiased, try to use more interesting verbiage.
Frequently the referent for this word is unclear. You don’t want to use nouns all the time (“The car stalled because the car was out of gas” sounds like Tarzan’s apish attempt to say “The car stalled because it was out of gas”). But when you’re presenting complex ideas in complex sentences, the correlation between “it” and its referent can get buried. The easiest way to avoid this is to avoid the word “it.” And to make your sentences shorter.
This word bugs me in much the same way that “utilize” does. Avoid any word that ends in “-ize,” really. Quit trying to verb your nouns.
The word “this” is problematic in much the same way that “it” is.
Combing through your writing and eliminating every single “this,” “that,” “it,” “-ize,” and be-verb is a great way to become more aware of when you’re using these words lazily. Once you’ve eliminated every single instance of “bad words” from your writing, you can go back and make it sound more natural. You can become aware of where the “bad words” were actually helpful, and learn how to use them effectively in the future. Re-insert an “it” or two, if you find that it’s really the best way to make your meaning clear. Go ahead and use a few “be” verbs.
Writing is a learning process, a conversation between writer and reader. And you should never stop striving to make that interactive process as productive as possible.
Do you have any “bad words” you hate to see in writing? Disagree with any of the ones I pointed out? Let me know!