Decimate Your Darlings

Fiiiiiiine. I’ll acknowledge the existence of semantic drift. To the great distress of pedants everywhere (a much more tedious performance group than Improv Everywhere)—who are, of course, conservative—the meanings of words can change over time, generally because a sufficient quantity of philistines start using them wrong, and ultimately receive some sort of official sanction.

It seems that ‘decimate’, the darling nit of many a nitpicker, is off the nit list. No longer may you chide your prey with “…well, actually, decimate means to take the tenth part.”

The number one definition offered by the Oxford Dictionaries is “Kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of.”

So there.

But what is legitimate might still be trite. As a test, I searched Google for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” + decimate. (It was probably reading a review, or the tenth review, of this movie that had the word rattling around in my head at all.) 37,800 results returned. What does that mean?

Maybe decimate is just the simplest term available to describe a key plot point—the virus decimated the human population (spoiler!). So, any review would almost have to include it, much as anyone reviewing War of the Worlds would employ the phrase “aliens invaded” or risk riding into the purple prose.

And yet, in this context, decimate still feels like a high-dollar word willfully misused, like ordering Grey Goose in your mangotini because you saw everyone else at Sandals do the same.

Why are 10,000 people writing about the same thing in the same way? Or rather, to what end? That is the question. Perhaps in this age of vast availability and content bloat, it’s time to decimate the ranks of writers.

Sample, and consider:

In “Rise,” corporate greed and the abuse of animals not only results in the creation of a population of super-intelligent apes that will one day rule the planet, but also a deadly virus that speeds up that transition by utterly decimating the human population (it’s the so-called “simian flu” that’s mentioned prominently in “Dawn”).

What ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ says about war

Ten years from the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which saw humanity decimated by the airborne virus ALZ-113, otherwise known as the ‘Simian Flu’, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes finds the human survivors of the outbreak attempting to continue with their lives in an enclave separated from the ape civilization, which has evolved at alarming speed – even learning to speak English.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) Cinema Movie Review

The simian virus that James Franco concocted in the last film has enhanced the ape brain but near-decimated the human population.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Rolling Stone)

In the intervening years between the two films, the simian flu built in Will Rodman’s (James Franco) lab in Rise… has decimated mankind with only a few immune to its devastation.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Red lines in the opening credits of the 2014’s “Dawn” map a pandemic that decimated humanity.

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’: Guns and tongues for apes on screen

I’m suffering from dystopian-future fatigue. After the Hunger Games films and Divergent, The Walking Dead and Elysium, Oblivion and the latest X-Men movie, I’ve had enough of decimated and decaying urban landscapes and stratified class systems and alien or robotic overlords.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Isn’t Monkeying Around (Sorry)

And with it, our first glimpse at what Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been up to in the 10 years since the Simian Plague decimated most of Earth’s human population.

‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’: An Exclusive Look Inside The Stunning Ape Village

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” set a decade after humanity and its power supply are nearly decimated, portrays the difficulty of rebuilding civilization without software.

Star Apps: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

A simian flu has decimated humankind.

Film Review: Smart, Powerful ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (WSJ)

Points for brevity.

The human population has been decimated by the strain of Simian Flu created in the film’s predecessor, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Natalie Stendall’s Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Civilization has been decimated and everything is in ruins.

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, released in the UK and Ireland this week, continues the story that film began, as Caesar faces fresh threats to his family and tribe from a band of survivors of a deadly pandemic that has decimated the earth’s human population.

‘Give that ape an Oscar!’

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the follow-up to the 2011 reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” is set a decade after the simian virus decimated the vast majority of the humans.

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is a riveting thriller: 3.5 stars

A virus has decimated the population, while chaos and the human element has annihilated the rest.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Is Spectacular!

Oh, bravo, Jonathan Pritzlaff. I salute your old-school precision.

Just in case you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll toss my opinion onto the pile and tell you that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is good. And just maybe, the vast popularity of this spectacle of humanity’s decimation will dissuade our social media aspirants from saying ‘viral’ like it’s a good thing.

Tears of a Klout

A few days ago, an unattributed Instagram made the rounds of our office and inspired this tweet:

Without a clear indicator of the sign’s vintage, we purposely referred to it in the vague past tense. Thanks to the ensuing socially transmitted outrage, the Official Klout Blog weighed in to note that the poster was from a 2010 Stanford job fair and offered a thoughtful apology:

Looking back, it’s clear how uninviting and offensive that language is to many people, not just women. It’s not something we’re proud of. We are sorry about the message that was conveyed then. We don’t support or condone sexism at Klout, and our culture today has matured from what it was then.

As an example of the mature culture, the post goes on to list the Klout core values, which were apparently co-written by Stephen Covey and Extreme Sports Punk #1:

  • Be Bold.
  • Punch Mediocrity in the Face.
  • Deliver Value with Integrity.
  • Get There Faster.
  • Kloutlaws Ride Together.

Ride on, Kloutlaws, ride on.

Unpacking the Unsucking

An age has passed since we last took the necessary trouble with this blog, or really any trouble. And in the meantime we’ve let you languish without guidance in verbal confusion.

While we dust ourselves off and ferret around for our red pens, let us direct you to a fun bit of word nerdery that dates back to last year. Ben Zimmer took up the tasking of unpacking the morphology of unsucking over at Language Log:

My first thought was that it was a peculiar case of the reversative un- prefix attaching to an intransitive verb and transitivizing it in the process: thus, to unsuck something would be understood as ‘to make it cease to suck’. But after discussing the matter with the master of negation Larry Horn (who has helped me think through tricky un- usage in the past), I came to realize that unsuck here is best understood as a denominal verb (that is, a verb derived from a noun): ‘to remove the suck from’.

It’s a gem with quite a discussion in the comments. Go put your eyes on it.

Troubled: Advice for Exclamatory E-mails

Q: My question is about exclamations versus periods in e-mails. I personally use exclamation marks but have known people to think they come off as overeager, overly casual, or insincere. What do you think? I am talking about the use of them in more of a tonal sense, not in a correct punctuation sense.

A: Hands-down I’m partial to them, but I tend toward a passel of superlatives in my personal e-mail to start with. Figuring out tone online is a beast, in part because we have the great, great liberty to type whatever we please—personal style guides that brim with asterisked actions, wayward capitalization and smileys, or even an interrobang. At their worst, these idiosyncratic stamps fail to translate. In person, such ambiguity is calibrated through tonal crutches: the expressive range of the human voice, the set of shoulder in a person’s stance.

But we’re talking e-mail. In a landscape of princely spam-scams, assorted acronyms, and MOAR, where does the exclamation point (cheery, enthusiastic, alarmed) fit? What you should consider is context: audience and personality.

For one, the level of formality fluctuates based on whom you’re writing (potential client or kid sister?) and what you’re saying (exuberance probably shouldn’t loom large in a sympathy note). Two, you might very well be the kind of person built on infinite pep, and your online voice should reflect that. A giant disconnect between you the person and your e-mail persona can be unsettling. It also doesn’t help your reader to interpret how you meant “cute!” versus “cute.” in reply to, say, an image of a small animal in costume. On the other hand, if you end every other sentence with an exclamation point, it’s hard to maintain that pitch of intensity and not appear “overeager” or a staunch fan of The National Enquirer. Modulation keeps a reader’s attention. And there should be some way for you to convey degrees of emphasis (whether it’s in all caps or italics, etc.), lest you run the risk of appearing too flat or robotic*.

Go ahead. The short answer is to use exclamation points as you would any other word or font style—with intent. As a broad rule, I would avoid a string of unspooled marks (like so: !!!!!), which skews a little fanatical. Anything else is yours. Give a last read-through, cull your fleet of exclamations, hit send, and presto, it’s gone, never to come back to haunt you, right? It’s only the internet.

*Robots don’t favor exclamations. As per my one-question interview with a chatbot. Science!

Have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed? Write to troubled@muledesign.com.

A Real Tragedy

Some terrible things happened at the end of last week. Chief among them in the news were two events, each apparently caused by a single troubled individual.

On Friday morning in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik bombed a building in Oslo and went on a shooting rampage on Otoya Island. According to the latest numbers, Anders Behring Breivik killed 93 people and wounded 97. (Since he has confessed, I’m not bothering to say “allegedly”.)

People around the world struggled—and continue to struggle—to make sense of this horrific attack. Because people need to make sense of terrible things. There is a whole branch of theology around it.

And thanks to the Internet, millions of people are instantly aware of and can communicate with each other about every terrible thing that occurs within its range.

On Friday afternoon in London, 27-year-old singer Amy Winehouse died at her flat. People around the world had no trouble whatsoever making sense of her death. It fit right into an existing pattern, the 27 Club, which comprises famous musicians who died at age 27.

In response to these events, Twitter abounded with expressions of grief, outrage, and the usual gallows humor—much more of the latter in the case of Amy Winehouse. Leaving aside questions of taste, some jokes were clever and most reiterated that she should have gone to rehab after all.

“Tragedy!” was the popular outcry.

Like a leery next-door neighbor, the Internet leaps at a chance to impugn. So, by the weekend, chastisers were taking the opportunity to chastise anyone bemoaning the death of a single singer in the face of a nation’s grief, and particularly for applying so strong a word to the inferior misfortune.

theshaeman: What does it say about us when “Amy Winehouse” is trending but the 93 lives lost in Norway aren’t so much? Tragedy is tragedy.

twentymajor: Just to clarify, what happened to Amy Winehouse is a shame. It is not a tragedy. Please see Norway for correct use of that word.

mezzoblue: I’m rather appalled at the number of people I follow who are tweeting about her, but haven’t mentioned yesterday. One is actually a tragedy.

Yes, one is “actually a tragedy.” But I would argue, it’s actually the untimely death of a talented singer.

Referring to the origins, a tragedy is drama in which the protagonist meets with disaster through a personal fault. It’s from the Greek, literally “goat song” ( tragos “goat” + oide “song”), for reasons that are not entirely clear. A tragedy is a performance, a simulated terrible experience meant to be experienced communally by an audience. The story of Amy Winehouse’s life is a perfect tragedy, all the more so because it seemed inevitable to those who watched it unfold like a story. (I’ll set aside the question of the extent to which popular media exacerbate the suffering of the famous.)

And of course, over time, the definition of tragedy came to extend to real-world events, but it is rooted in public performance.

The seventh proposition of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus is:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must pass over in silence.

Those who aren’t philosophers of language might say instead:

Words fail me.

Momentous, terrible, or painful events are frequently honored with a moment of silence. In the dialect of community blog Metafilter, respectful silence is indicated by a comment containing only a single period.

.

Without the context afforded by unified community standards, this expression is virtually impossible to convey in text. So, anyone left speechless by the enormity of unfolding events has no choice but to remain silent. And the public reaction to an accessible tragedy rushes to fills the void, making for an easy interpretation that base and shallow feelings dominate, rather than the opposite.

The greater the misfortune, the less there is to say.

To you, the reader, it might seem offensively trivializing to parse the language used to comment on human suffering by those who are so far removed from that suffering. But this is our condition, each of us is affected in a way we cannot name because we are part of an ever-increasing community that experiences devastating events together in the most reductive way possible. And, feeling moved to participate, we do in just a few words.

So, before you criticize anyone for using the wrong word, consider the burden of remaining silent when no right word exists. No mot juste in an unjust world.

Being is a Verb

The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogenous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in Tlön’s conjectural Ursprache, from which the “present” languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value.

—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940), Jorge Luis Borges

Some literary types credit Jorge Luis Borges—an Argentine writer and poet who died in 1986—with pre-figuring the internet in his fiction. In this context, the Library of Babel is most frequently mentioned among the stories of Borges. This is a tale of an infinite hexagonal library containing all possible books. Writers who like to feel smart have drawn parallels with Wikipedia, or the entire World Wide Web-slash-internet itself.

The story quoted above describes the invented language of the Southern Hemisphere of the notional world of Tlön, a language lacking nouns and reflecting a Berkeleian idealism. This idea threads through the conceptual structure of the internet. The companies with the most impact, those that alter reality and extend the vocabulary of human experience are those that coin new verbs.

For example, there is no word corresponding to the word “moon,” but there is a verb which in English would be “to moon” or “to moonate.” “The moon rose above the river is hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or literally: ‘Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned.’

Arguably the greatest of these is Google. Google is synonymous with internet search. Search is currently indispensable to conducting business or doing just about anything online.

Google is one among many.

We tweet and Instagram and Flickr (much less than we used to). And Skype. And have our paper towels (Amazon) Primed to us. I’ll eBay stuff I don’t need anymore. Purchasers will PayPal me. I’ll Netflix some movies and Digg some news.

A heterogenous collection of acts.

Think of the monumental unease of Yahoo! For all their repeated asking of the billion-dollar question: Do you Yahoo!?

Only crickets or derision in response. No one Yahoos, even without the awkward punctuation. The company never defined a significantly innovative action synonymous with their name. The original Yahoo! directory had tremendous value, but although it was useful, it was just an old familiar thing—a directory—soon to be eclipsed by all the new things you could do using the listed links.

This has nothing to do with the inherent structure of the name. It is no more absurd nor less euphonious than Google. All of the above examples are nouns, most of them proper company names, that got verbed. It has everything to do with focus, or lack thereof. The meaning of Yahoo! is too diffuse to translate to action.

Has the web fostered the creation of new nouns? New things besides the thing itself whether you call it the web or the internet? Maybe Wikipedia counts, along with all the other wikis which could not exist without the internet. Possibly social networks if you consider the network of relationships as more than the sum of their photos and messages and access permissions. But most everything else is cast as an analog to a thing in the real-world. Since the internet is made of bits, not atoms—a notional parallel universe of information in motion—we can’t draw a picture of it without referring to an archaic earthly analog. Only ineffable actions can be apprehended and owned as native creations.

E-mailing is perfectly intelligible as an action, but an e-mail message requires a metaphorical representation, a little pixel envelope. Music is still music, even though we have untold new ways to distribute and experience it. “Friends” aren’t quite what they used to be, but no one is sure whether it’s for better or worse, and no one person or organization can take credit for that.

Twitter sort of invented “followers” but the important conceptual innovation was defining what it means “to follow.”

Fortunately, we have moved beyond the dark days of early website interfaces and hamfisted aspirational labeling as though calling your job listings “E-pportunities” would do anything more impressive than jack up your bounce rate. Save among the obtuse and those who prize whimsy above SEO, plain language labels have won the day.

New interface elements can be useful things that only exist online, but only to the extent that they disappear seamlessly into the thing you are trying to do. (Just as the doorknob must have been quite an innovation because it made for easier passing though.) And, as with labels, innovation in the non-verbal parts of an interface is frequently just another way to make things more confusing. (See: all iPad magazine apps.) The best most useful things are the most conventional.

The branded expansion of our everyday ontology, the invention of new nouns, remains in the purview of the physical world. Segways, iPads, TiVos, and Garmins.

Online, we live in a latter-day colony of Tlön where nothing exists but doing makes it so and the verbs you coin are the coin of the realm.

The Importance of Concrete Language

Quick links before the long weekend.

“Business Jargon Makes People Think You’re Lying, Study Says” (with an Unsuck It mention):

…stick as much as possible to simple language that’s easy to visualize—concrete verbs like ‘write’ or ‘walk’ beat ambiguous ones like ‘benefit’ and ‘improve’—and avoid the passive tense.

And the ever delightful Stephen Fry, on language pedantry (thanks to David McCreath for the find):

Enjoy!

The Sentence With Care

What catches me about language—whether as ad copy, a short story, or a blog post—what I glance for at first scan, is some kind of care. And while the signs of this care may shift depending on the reader’s tastes (I lean toward sentence-level experiments and uncanny twists in diction—pretty much anything Barry Hannah has put his name to), the broader, more platonic idea of care stays: a state of serious attention and thought. I want a writer I can trust.

Someone who takes the measure of both the message and the audience, who then relays said message with clear precision, is fantastic. But someone who pulls off a hat trick of substance, clarity, and style is an ingenious, glittering mutant. That’s the person I want in my corner, complete with hopes for last-minute right-on revisions and general laser beam retribution.

Of course, style is subjective. But here’s a starter pack of givens. Don’t write stilted phrases. Don’t pass off jargon* or try to dress up the refugee remnants of a slapdash content farm. And do keep in mind your sentence’s subject and its agency—avoid the passive voice. Much maligned outside lab reports, the passive voice confuses and distances the actor from his or her action. However, such evasive agency is helpful when you want to elude blame, as we see in this spectacular instance of a former president trying to free his buddy after a hunting accident:

He heard a bird flush, and he turned and pulled the trigger and saw his friend get wounded.
—George W. Bush, from Lera Boroditsky’s “How Language Shapes Thought”. (She gives a great rundown on progressive steps of agency.)

The he in question is then-Vice President Dick Cheney and the unfortunate friend is Harry Whittington, the same man Cheney shot during a quail hunt. Though the sentence is technically active voice (he heard, he turned, he pulled, he saw), its meaning is anything but. The comment suits more as a passive cousin; the rhythm of the subject-verb, subject-verb pattern functions almost discretely, slicing the sentence into three events: Cheney hears the bird, Cheney pulls a trigger, Cheney sees his friend bloodied. The sore lack of any explicit connection between the trigger and the wound is transformative—Cheney isn’t an actor but a witness.

I haven’t been able to get this line out of my head since I first read it. It’s misleading, it’s unethical, but it’s also brilliantly, sickeningly effective. This sentence is crammed with care. The handler who wrote it probably shouldn’t get in a sound sleep at night, but the phrasing works, and it’s important we recognize the mechanics underneath.

In future posts, I’ll address various aspects of style. If you have a specific question, shoot.

*Yet another danger of jargon, besides its sometime function as lazy industry shibboleth, is its fleeting relevance. Yesterday’s Web 2.0 is today’s cloud, and you’re left posturing against the linguistic equivalent of a bygone fad.

Hello

Because you are reading this, I assume that you are a good, thoughtful person—a person who cares about language (and who possesses an adequate sense of humor).

We care about language. We recognize that how we communicate and the words we choose define our personal relationships and change how we do business.

We know that it’s easy to fall back on clichés, unexamined metaphors, and pat phrases—particularly when these signify membership in a group, a group of people in the know. We want to end this. We want to encourage every striving individual to do their part to improve the world with each clear, original sentence it is within their power to speak or write.

So, following the encouraging response to Unsuck It, we offer this blog as a place to explore the ways in which “professional” communication in English goes wrong and why. And we reserve our right to write about any any darn thing that strikes us.

I hope you enjoy it, and that you continue to join us in unsucking the suck with every utterance.

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language