Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Bloodsucker Proxy

Late last week we stumbled upon an old post on Copyblogger about the mortal verbal threat posed by "vampire words" -- qualifiers like "rather," "pretty," "very," and "little" that "suck the lifeforce from sentences." Once we read the author's personal list of greatest nits, we were curious to get the perspective of other writers and find out how prevalent this peeve is. So, naturally, we polled the ghosts in the network to name their vampire nemeses.

Boy did we hit a nerve -- or should we say in this case a vein. Our poll unleashed a torrent of rhetorical bane-naming: words, phrases, even a thorough debunking of Strunk and White-ing. Many responses fit the basic Copyblogger standard of bloodsucking qualifiers ("important," "generally," "often," "actually," "basically,""literally," "unique,""impactful,""iconic"). Many others took a more expansive reading of the question and pointed fickle fingers at annoying/officious constructions and noxious cliches ("that is why," "just that," "the fact that," "perfect storm," "value-added," "silver bullet," "a myriad of," "plethora," "whence").

One writer, Richard Eskow, went so far as to take a stake to adjectives en masse.
"Every adjective slows the momentum of a sentence.  And every adjective imposes the writer's biases on the reader.  Therefore, every adjective inhibits the free flow of imagination that makes reading a collaboration between writer and reader.  It stifles off one-half of the human capital available for that act by excluding the reader from the interpretive proces. But while every adjective is a vampire word, some draw far more blood than others.  The more syllables an adjective has, for example, the more vampiric it may become. . . The worst adjective of all?  Maybe 'unsurprisingly.' For one thing it has too many syllables.  For another thing, if it's not surprising why waste my time by making me read about it?
Peter Roff, on the other hand, went to the other extreme. "There are no bad words," he wrote. "There are only bad writers."

The one clear takeaway -- hackery, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Now, for your venting pleasure, is a sampling of the more revealing and creative replies we received.

"It goes without saying" (then why say it?) that I've been resisting the urge to take a "deep dive" into this topic. (How deep, and why dive?) I can't decide, is it better to take a "deep dive", "jump in with both feet" (as opposed to jumping in with one foot), or just "dip my toe into the water?"  At any rate, I'm sure this group can "get to the bottom" of it. Who knows, we might even "change the paradigm" for identifying vampire words.  Meanwhile, let's all "like...you know..."
-- Boe Workman

If I hear one more person say "at the end of the day" I think I'll throw myself off a building. . . but not until the day is over.
-- Jacqueline Gold

I've found that even though I might not object to something on my own, finding out that another editor does, particularly for a clever reason, has swayed me over. For example, some years ago I heard that the editor of the Journal at one point announced that if he saw the word "upcoming" in a story again, he would be "downcoming" and the reporter would be "outgoing."  I had never really thought about it before but was convinced from that day forth.
-- Steve Hirsch

Too many otherwise good writers use "palpable." To me, it is similar to saying something is obvious or noticeable. If it wasn't either of those, you wouldn't be able to write about it.
-- Zachary Janowski

Have your own pet peeve to share? Feel free to write in your nominations in the comments below.

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