I’ve talked before about writers being builders, and that words are their tools. Tools are important, and they exist for a purpose. Butchers have sharp knives. Catchers have sturdy face masks. And Drivers Ed instructors have iron underwear. We all utilize tools, and if we use them wrongly, we will not be successsful in our jobs. Hey, you can cut down a tree with a pocket knife, but it’s going to take you a looooong time. Use the right tool.
This brings me back to writers and their tools — words. Words have meanings (usually more than one). And these meanings are often quite precise – so there’s no reason to be redundant when using these meanings. For example: You would never call that famous body of water in Texas the Rio Grande River — Why? Because “rio” means river! You don’t need to say it twice. Or how about this on a party invitation: “Please R.S.V.P.” Again, redundant. R.S.V.P. means “répondez, s’il vous plaît” – Please reply. You – don’t- need – to – say – it – twice.
Now I realize I still make grammatical mistakes, but for the most part I try to stay true to my tools. I’m kind of pedantic about this, but I, as a writer, believe in words. I feel we should maintain their meanings… especially when those meanings are perfectly clear and useful as they stand. We don’t need to garble or embellish these meanings with useless garbage. Here’s some garbage that drives me up a wall. “He shrugged his shoulders.” “Coach grabbed me by the nape of the neck.” “She squatted down by the fire.” “Bob followed after the others.” And the worst of the bunch. “He had a smile on his face.” (WHERE THE HELL ELSE ARE YOU GOING TO HAVE A SMILE!?) Come on… shrug, nape, squat, follow, and smile all perfectly describe shoulders, neck, behind, downward motion, and facial expressions. These words don’t need help. When you try to sharpen these tools, you actually dull them.
My buddy, Mark, is a voracious reader, and I asked him once in a bookstore, “How do you decide if a book is worth your time?” He explained, “I’ll read the first page, and if I like the writing style, I’ll buy it.” Good advice. So I picked up a bestseller recently – it’s a thriller in the Dan Brown vein. I love that genre, so I bought it without following Mark’s advice. (Silly me.) When I got home and began reading, this bit of wordsmithing slapped me in the face IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH…. “a flock of ravens rose up in a black wash” and “they crashed into each other and rained down out of the sky.” Then 2 pages later: “They trailed behind the wagon on their own horses.”
HONESTLY?!? “rose up?” “rained down?” “trailed behind?” Rose, rained and trailed are perfectly good words that describe direction and position. On our planet, things don’t rise down or rain up or trail before. OK, yeah, these phrases are so common place that we don’t think about them any more. They are so prevelent that we are now numb to their mis-use. They are a mistaken part of our speech. But HOW did they become part of our speech? What bozo first said, “I rose up out of my chair,” when he knew perfectly well the correct usage was “I rose out of my chair.” What numbskull first uttered, “Lookee thar! A plague of fiery hail is raining down from the sky!” when “raining” described the motion of the ice balls perfectly well. Come on. Isn’t it time the peabrains stopped dictating our language? (If you think I’m being elitist, please enjoy this phrase I recently heard at the mall: “He was, like, a counselor or whatever.” Or this one from tonight’s waitress: “Here’s your guys’s menus.” Or this abbreviation heard in a school: “Borrow me a piece of pape.” – That’s right, pape – not paper.)
OK, OK, so I’m pedantic. (And, yes, I’m enjoying my thriller despite the fact that the book editor should’ve caught those phrases.) I’m a lone paladin standing in a battlefield of silly phrases. When I mention these redundancies, most people just shrug (!) and shake their heads. (“Boy, is THAT guy’s mental state plummeting down!”) But, truthfully, the more you think about these stupid phrases, the more blatantly wrong they appear. Soon you will start to cringe when you hear them… and you, too, will stand by my side on the battlefield and proclaim, “None shall pass.”