Words We Ostensibly, Potentially, Just Maybe Totally Use Too Often
My fellow 7D writer Kevin J. Kelley just sent me a link to a great New York Times blog called Words We Love Too Much that critiques the paper's language use. The overused word of the day is "eponymous." Writers here know how I, as an editor, feel about that one.
Then Kevin suggested that, being a word nerd and a grammar fascist (my terms, not his), I try Blurting something similar. Since I just yesterday lectured someone on the use of "begging the question", I couldn't resist.
Language develops organically, like a garden, and in this garden there are some weeds that inexplicably grow very big. I'm talking about words people overuse without knowing why.
Not annoying slang terms such as "OMFG!" or "That's how I roll." We're all aware of those. When we use them, we're trying to be cool (or ironic).
No, I'm talking about good old regular words that turn into monsters.
If you've ever studied a foreign language and then conversed with real speakers on a daily basis, you've noticed these. They're the words you didn't learn in class, but regular people use them all the frickin' time. They will throw you, and you will have to figure out the meaning from context.
For instance, when I lived in France, I continually heard students say "facultatif" (optional) and "grosso modo" (roughly, approximately, in general). The latter, you may notice, isn't French.
And French speakers who come here are probably thrown by how often we say "actually." Don't try doing that in France, where "actuellement" means "right now" or "currently." In American English it appears to mean "I feel like pausing in my sentence to collect my thoughts, while adding a bit of emphasis."
How do we know which words and phrases we overuse? We have to create Internet/texting abbreviations for them: IIRC (if I remember correctly), imho (in my humble opinion), wrt (with regard to), prolly, obvs. Saying them hundreds of times per day is easy; writing them is a pain.
I'm not saying it's wrong to lean on these totally everyday terms. (Totally not!)
But, as an editor, I notice when a heretofore modest little word or phrase suddenly grows very big and overshadows its competitors. I get tired of reading it, and I wonder if people are using it because they need it, or just because it sounds smart.
Here's my overused word of the week: "ostensibly."
According to the dictionary, ostensibly means "apparently, to all outward appearances."
Simple enough, no? But lately people have started to lean on this word. To find out why, I did a search and found examples from recent stories in Seven Days. (Writers, I'm not trying to embarrass you! The usage isn't "wrong" per se.)
Examples, all from the past few months:
"LeMay can certainly take significant credit for shaping Revelation Skirts ... In addition to producing and ostensibly arranging the album, he plays bass, drums, organ and guitar."
"Much Ado also represents a thematic transition ... The saga of young fiancés Hero and Claudio ostensibly drives the plot."
"The figures in Colburn’s 'Variations on a Theme' have a quite different collective presence in their almost surreal setting — ostensibly outdoors, it has the formality of studio setup with a faux backdrop."
"First, he suggests, antismoking groups are ideologically opposed to the idea of smokers “going through the motions of what ostensibly looks like smoking”..."
"There I was, driving down the road, ostensibly minding my own business, but not really."
"When I heard about the first-ever Spartan Race — ostensibly an adult obstacle course meant to test even the meatiest gym rats and gung-ho-est jarheads — I knew I had to go."
Using our trusty search engine, I found uses of "ostensibly" going back to 2001, but more than half of them were from '07 on. While our archives for those years are probably fuller, I'm guessing the word's stock has indeed risen.
So, why have people started saying "ostensibly" instead of "apparently"? Does it mean more, or just sound smarter?
Looking at the examples above, I see the meaning of "ostensibly" slipping around. In some cases, it's used to indicate false appearance as opposed to reality ("ostensibly minding my own business, but not really"). In others, it refers to an appearance that is probably true ("ostensibly arranging the album" -- I assume this means the artist isn't credited with the arrangement but obviously did it). Or it could be an initial impression the author has yet to verify through experience, like the one about the Spartan Race.
In still other cases, the "ostensible" thing isn't exactly a lie, but it is the surface beneath which we find a deeper truth: Much Ado is not just about lovers; Colburn's painting makes the outdoors look like the indoors.
Then there are cases where "ostensibly" is ostensibly redundant, like the quote from the story about e-cigarettes (not author Ken Picard's words, but an interviewee's): "going through the motions of what ostensibly looks like smoking." If it looks like smoking, then it appears to be smoking, and it's "ostensibly smoking." The word just emphasizes that what appears to be smoking really isn't, which is also conveyed by the phrase "going through the motions."
That's how people talk -- overemphasizing to make a point. Nothing wrong with it. I just think it's interesting that we're tossing the word "ostensibly" into our sloppy speech without thinking much about it.
But when we write, we do have a chance to think.
So here's my suggestion: When you reach for "ostensibly," think about why you aren't just using "appears" or "seems" or "looks like" or "apparently" or "is reputed to be." Is it because you're sick of those noncommittal phrases? Can you really solve the problem by using "ostensibly"?
Don't just use the word because it's multisyllabic and sounds faintly professorial. Don't use it to make your sentences waffle or to give yourself a way out if the "ostensible" turns out not to be true.
If you write, "He was ostensibly a model student," for instance, you should be able to show why that appearance was not the full story. If you just mean that his mom told you he was a model student, but you don't consider her the most objective source, say so.
In short, use the word when you mean it. Not when you ostensibly mean it.
Postscript: More Word Weeds
Kevin has submitted some words and phrases he'd like to see less of in 7D:
that's (not) how I roll
In my mind, the first two are in a special category -- slang. Does it make our writing sound young and hip, or trying-too-hard and dated? That is the question.
The last three words have the same smarty-pants sheen as "ostensibly." They sound like something a literary critic would say, except now journalists and everybody with a blog is saying them. Good trend or bad?
I'd add to "meme" and "trope" a strangely popular word I've started to notice: "iteration." Maybe I'll tackle that in a future post.
For now, anyone else got words they want to see less of? More of? I'll give some thought to the words I lean too hard on. 'Cause, God knows, I've got 'em.