Daily Archives: February 19, 2008

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Horton Wants to Hear a Who

February 19, 2008 by in category Archives tagged as

Monica Stoner, member at large

I’m reminded of phrases from my favorite writers. Any Rand, in Atlas Shrugged, Francisco talking to Dagny Taggart’s brother: “Words have an exact meaning.” Henry Higgins ranting in My Fair Lady “By rights they should be taken out and hung, for the cold blooded murder of the English tongue.” As a writer, it grates every time.

You hear it on newscasts and read it in newspapers: “The person, that works for the company.” If it’s a person, then it’s a who. The rules read as follows: (taken from http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/whoVwhVt.asp)

Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups or things.
That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses.
If this, that, these, or those has already introduced an essential clause, you may use which to introduce the next clause, whether it is essential or nonessential.

The website gave some examples. In the interest of active writing, I would suggest going one step further. For: “She belongs to an organization that specializes in saving endangered species.” why not write: “She belongs to an organization specializing in saving endangered species.”? Reduces the word count by one but punches up the sentence. Our minds automatically hesitate on certain words, including “that.” When editing, I first go through to remove “that” plus any version of the “to be.”

So instead of saying “The group that is going to the museum.” try “The group going to the museum.” And so on. Of course once you start, your automatic editor will intrude when you’re reading for pleasure, and take some of the fun out of your stolen hours.

While I’m on an editing soapbox, let’s look at the word “laconic.” By definition, “laconic” means terse, of few words. The word has nothing to do with eyebrows, facial expressions, or any other body part. Unfortunately, some popular authors started the trend of such phrases as “he raised a laconic eyebrow.” Have any of you ever heard an eyebrow talk, tersely or otherwise? Because I certainly haven’t, nor would I want to. Eyebrows are supposed to stay quietly on my face, somewhere above my eyes.

Words have an exact meaning

For that matter, a phrase I’ve heard all too often recently is “mandatory spay/neuter,” referencing the removal of sexual organs from dogs or cats. Neuter is non gender specific, but is used for the sterilization of male dogs, most likely because the accurate word, “castrate,” is too painful for males to hear. Since this PC phrasing has been used to mitigate the importance of these surgeries, and to encourage more people to support the goals of animal rights advocates, it is doubly important to use the correct word. Spay. Castrate. Sterilize. If you want to speak collectively, neuter is appropriate. For impact, I’ve been known to use “Forced Sterilization.” If you want to sound a bit more knowledgeable, or just have fun, try Gonadectomy, a personal favorite of mine.

Words have an exact meaning and as writers we need to protect those meanings.

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