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Fancy or Skunked: Is the Wrong Word Sometimes Right?

Erin Brenner’s recent post at The Writing Resource, “Nine Words to Avoid in Your Writing,” wasn’t about banning words. It was about avoiding the kinds of words that Bryan Garner calls “skunked”: those whose meanings are so controversial they’re guaranteed to provoke reader fury. Bemused, comprise, data, hopefully—you know the type.

Conservative writers might feel that using such words “correctly” (that is, in their traditional sense) is a matter of principle and a way to educate readers. On the other hand, writers with less prescriptivist leanings might enjoy flaunting less accepted usages, maybe even relishing the dust-ups when they are challenged.

Would it be better to avoid such words? After all, being “right” has little value if everyone believes you’re wrong.

Likewise with jargon. One sentence I recently encountered in editing contained five words ending in -ation. To my ear, this was about four too many, but the author was confident that it was the most efficient way to communicate her point with the people she expected to read it. Maybe she was right. Who am I to object to flexibilization and hypermoralization? Are we to avoid big words, as well?

Strunk and White, of course, famously ranted against “fancy” words, to the point where their more enthusiastic acolytes would have us all writing in monosyllables. I won’t go on about this, since others have already pretty thoroughly done so. But the fact is, Messrs. S&W didn’t really mean it. They loved fancy words and knew well how to use them. They couldn’t have written The Elements of Style without them. Their point was merely that we should not use them for no reason.

A distinguished professor friend of mine recently wondered in an e-mail to me “how  to characterize beautiful, lucid but terse expression? And how might one teach others to achieve such a style?”

Never having taught, I’m at a loss for an answer. I do know that it’s important for a writer to know his audience and what it expects or will tolerate. As an editor, I sometimes have to trust the writer to know how many -ations are too many. Whether fancy or skunked, words that enrage or distract will get in the way of the message. But as Ms. Brenner points out, “determining what riles your audience is the trick.”

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