Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday's Term Turnaround, v. 2

The blockbuster yet awkwardly-titled series returns after taking a week off for spring break. Now I'm back, well-nourished and ready to introduce some words that need to disappear from use in their currently misused forms. I'm depending on my brilliant and literate reading audience to assist me in achieving that goal.

There have been thousands of articles and blog entries devoted to the topic of word overuse, which means I didn't have to look very far to discover some candidates for this week's list. After you read mine, go here and here if you want to see some real effort. I'm pretty haphazard: I scratch my head, think about my personal pet peeves and start writing.  But some of these people devote their whole professional lives to creating complete and useful lists of words they want to bury. I wonder if that pays well.

If you still don't know where I'm going with this post, please look at the first installment of Tuesday's Term Turnaround, where I explain why "perhaps a vocabulary tune-up is in order."

For the rest of you, let us begin to examine some truly overused words.

basically - adverb
Here's an example of how people like to use "basically" to start as sentence in which they'd like to sound sincere, although the facts dispute this:

Man: "Basically, I'm a one-woman man."
Date: "How many times have you been married?"
Man: "Four. But only to one woman at a time."

This guy wants his date to believe that his fundamental nature is monogamous, so he precedes his statement with "basically." But "basic" is not a perfect replacement for "true" or "accurate."

Another abuse of "basically" is when the speaker wants to convey they idea that they are only sharing part of a more complex or lengthy story, as in:

Prisoner X: "So what are you in for?"
Prisoner Y: "Murder, robbery, possession, speeding and illegal lane-change."
Prisoner X: "What happened?"
Prisoner Y: "Basically, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Notice how "basically" spares the listener of the sordid details leading to Prisoner Y's incarceration. By saying "basically," he suggests unnamed, complicated circumstances which are central to the truth of the story, but unrevealed.

It is best to use "basically" sparingly, and to apply it when only one feature, factor or variable is being measured or analyzed. It should refer to something in the base form, i.e. simple, essential, primary. If you need to discuss something complicated, don't confuse the issue by introducing the idea as simple.  For example:

DON'T: "Basically, an anti-quark is just a really small part of an atom that is the opposite of a quark."

DO: "I am incapable of describing a quark or an anti-quark in terms you can understand. Basically, you should look it up."

totally - adverb
Another adverb, (for those of you keeping track), "totally" is like fingers on chalkboard for me. When it is used to confirm attendance at something ("Are you going to the party?" "I'm totally there!"), I clench my fists and grit my teeth.

Other abuses worthy of a citizen's arrest, and some suggested substitutes:

"She totally shouldn't wear those skinny jeans because her butt is totally hanging out and she basically just looks like a totally flat slob."
Instead, try:
"Those skinny jeans aren't very flattering to a size XXL figure. Her mother was completely justified in suggesting she wear something else." 

"The Patriots will totally dominate the Giants."
Instead, try:
"The Patriots were completely dominated by the Giants." 

"If I'm crowned Miss Northeast Granger, I will be totally about stopping global warming before it totally kills the Earth."
Instead, try:
"If crowned Miss Northeast Granger, I will devote myself to the awesome cause of ending global warming, since that is guarantees lots of publicity." 
Think of "totally" as a word reserved for statements of mathematical precision. If you can quantify your response at or above the 99% threshhold, you can totally use "totally." And in the name of all that is sacred, please apply that same rule of thumb to the word "absolutely."

This word shows up on many overused word lists. "Amazing" must be the go-to substitute for people who were told they say "awesome" too much.

Ending in -ing, you'd expect it to be used as a verb. Something that is amazing should cause amazement to occur. But in this sample exchange which passes for polite conversation:

A: Hi! How are you?
B: I'm amazing! How are you?
A: I'm awesome, thanks for asking.
B: No problem.

you'll notice that neither person mentioned any experience or activity that would inspire awe or amazement. They just referred to their current status as being capable of doing so. ("No problem" in place of "you're welcome" is a peeve for another day.) Referring to the capacity to amaze without specifying how you achieve this effect is inconclusive. If you never describe a person, including yourself, as "amazing," you are safe.

Since grammar is never far from the mind of any of my devoted readers, let's pause to hurriedly open another tab and find out exactly what part of speech "amazing" generally functions as, in lazy daily speech. Since it often describes or modifies a noun, but ends in "-ing," it must be a present participle. As such, "amazing" cannot be the main verb, much less the lone word, in a sentence.

"Amazing" is usually applied liberally when discussing issues of beauty and fashion. Examples gushing from the red carpet commentary prior to an award ceremony might include:

"Jennifer Aniston's dress is an amazing shade of gunmetal grey that does absolutely nothing for her complexion."
"Check out the number of ripples on Ryan Reynolds' abs. Amazing!" 
"That Kardashian sister is going to have slit her skirt much higher if she wants to compete with Angelina's amazing thigh exposure."
If you want to use "amazing" correctly, reserve it for situations where something truly caused amazement. "To amaze" suggests an extreme level of surprise. The original meaning actually conveyed fear, as in an alarming or terrifying thing or event. The word has evolved to connote a lesser affect, but should still be used for exceptional cases, not just a modifier of exaggeration.

Miss Aniston's dress was probably a "pretty" or "dull" shade of grey. The color of the dress probably didn't cause astonishment; the dress probably didn't impress or astound the audience purely by virtue of the "amazing" color. Sometimes an "amazing" dress is simply a "nice" dress.

Last time on Tuesday's Term Turnaround, I dissected five words, which took much too long for the limited appeal. I decided to stop at three this week, which means I'm done.  Next week, I'll be whining about the misuse of the following words: diversityaddictiveneed and possibly exhausted. I'm also taking requests for this Hit Parade, so if you would like to suggest a word or term that drives you crazy, post a comment and let me know, and I'll try to find something annoying  and overly-complicated to say about it.

So what's left to say? Basically, go have a totally amazing day!

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