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October 23, 2014

BELOW THE BELTWAY

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Watch your language: Gene defiantly recommends it

By Gene Weingarten
The Washington Post (*)

WASHINGTON — As the world’s lead- ing connoisseur and curator of Bad Writing on the Internet, I often get letters from people about some common misuse of language that happens to annoy them. Most of these complaints are pedestrian. (Yes, I know “ATM machine” is redundant. Zzzz.) But reader Amity Horowitz just wrote in with an eye-opener. Coyly, Amity invited me to Google the peculiar expression “defiantly recommend.”

“Defiantly recommend” has been used more than 1.5 million times! While one might occasionally recommend something defiantly, at the risk of censure or ridicule — say, the ritual eating of one’s placenta — how often would that sort of thing happen? Not a million-odd times. So I investigated.

“Defiantly recommend” turns out to be a classic example of Internet-induced idiocy, an elegant collision of incompetence and indifference:

A person wants to write “I definitely recommend” in, say, a product review but spells it “definately,” which is the illiterate’s go-to version of the word. Spellcheck (and its co-conspirator, autocorrect) realizes something is wrong and suggests “defiantly.” The incompetent writer doesn’t know this is wrong or doesn’t care or doesn’t notice. And so “defiantly recommend” gets published a million-plus times. A similar thing happens when inept spellers write “alot,” meaning “a lot,” but spellcheck turns it into “allot,” which explains the haemorrhage of Google hits for expressions like “I have allot of weapons.” This phenomenon has happened more than 2.2 million times, which is allot.

We will call this sort of thing The Law of Incorrect Corrections, and it leads indirectly to:

The Law of Uninformed Uniformity

Before the Web, to be published as a writer, you pretty much had to be a professional. Professionals are unafraid of words and know a lot of them and take pains to use them in entertaining, unexpected combinations. This is not so with many amateurs of the Web, who have much they wish to say but lack the professional’s confidence and extensive arsenal of words. They are to writing as I am to fashion: I know I have to put something on every day, but I have no confidence in my ability to mix and match with style or taste. And so I tend to dress in “uniforms”: safe combinations of familiar things, such as khaki pants with blue shirts. The modern Web-sters are like that with words. With words, they are ... woefully inadequate.

Consider that very expression, a staple of the Internet. A Google search confirms that 80 percent of the time the word “woefully” is used, it is modifying the word “inadequate.” It’s difficult to explain how preposterous this is, but I’ll try: it’s as though 80 percent of the time people use salt, it’s on scrambled eggs. Think of all the missed opportunities for flavour.

Finally, The Principle of Trite & Wrong

Cliché is easy — it pops into the mind in an instant and often sounds profound or comfortingly familiar. Therefore, cliché infests the Internet, even when it is completely inappropriate to the point being made.

Consider “nothing could be further from the truth.” This expression is always a lie. Repeat: This expression is always a lie. If we scan the Web, we find it has been used 13 million times, generally in pompous defence of oneself or of another against allegedly scurrilous allegations. Charles Colson, for example, once decried the popular image of Martin Luther King Jr. as “a liberal firebrand, waging war on traditional values.” Says Colson: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Really, now! I think I can refute this without getting into a tedious discussion of a dead man’s politics. Here is one statement, for example, that is palpably further from the truth: “Martin Luther King Jr. was a subspecies of avocado.” See?

I could go on and on, but whatever I said about the absurdity of the situation would be woefully inadequate.

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