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How to Avoid Being Seduced by Words That 'Cheapen the Language'

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: Our guest is the author of a book called "On Words: Insight Into How Our Words Work -- and Don't."

RS: Paula LaRocque has worked for many years as a writing instructor and newspaper writing coach. Her advice to English language learners is to try to avoid bad habits that can be found even in the work of professional writers.

PAULA LaROCQUE: "If they're thinking about beauty and clarity, they won't be seduced by the things that cheapen the language. And, to my mind, that's the proliferation of unnecessary euphemisms or fad and cliché, the things that are embedded in the language like the proliferation of the -ize and the -wise suffixes. I remember reading in an obituary this sentence: 'The officer will be funeralized Tuesday.'"

AA: "Someone actually wrote that?"

Paula LaRocque
Paula LaRocque

PAULA LaROCQUE: "Yes, somebody actually wrote it. And you and I have no difficulty in seeing how even silly but ugly that is and how it cheapens the language and makes it less elegant than it could be. But a person speaking the language as second language might say, 'Oh, this is what a professional writer does and so this is what I should do.'

"Let's say that a member of your audience turns on the television here and gets the weather and the person says 'Let's see what the picture is weather-wise.' It's more elegant to say 'Let's see what the weather is.'"

RS: "You do talk about words in the media and you come down a little bit hard on the media. Tell us why and what are the things that perhaps an English language learner might want to avoid when listening to the media."

PAULA LaROCQUE: "When they listen to the media, the first thing they're going to hear is what I think of as media-speak. It's a small vocabulary, flat because it's overused; verbs such as spawned, spurred, fueled, triggered, decimated, sparked. They have these little bunches of words that fall into the sentence kind of fully born: 'He is the architect of a plan hammered out in wide-ranging discussions.'"

RS: "Isn't written language different from spoken language? Not to defend these words, but -- "

PAULA LaROCQUE: "I know you're not defending it, but here's what I think: no. The only thing that should be different between speech and writing is that writing can be more elegant, because you can edit it. You go back and look at the sentence. We don't have that luxury when we're speaking. But everything else should be the same.

"For example, Avi, if you were going to tell me a story and you walked into my office, you would probably do a subject-verb-object sentence."

AA: "That's right, that's the natural way people tend to speak."

PAULA LaROCQUE: "And if we were working on the newspaper, I'd say 'That's really interesting, maybe you should do a story on that.' So you go out and sit at the computer and write something entirely different. You write something like 'Amid a firestorm of criticism, spawned on Thursday when ... '

"I mean, we know how to engage each other's interests, how to be dramatic without being melodramatic. We know how to deliver a message so that we're not boring, bewildering, annoying people -- in person. And yet we sit down and we write and we do bore, bewilder and annoy."

AA: "And one last question. We're about to start a new academic year here in the United States and thousands of students from around the world will be attending classes and getting an introduction to academic American English. What suggestions would you offer them to prepare for the experience?"

PAULA LaROCQUE: "When they sit down to write, if they wouldn't think about how I'm going to impress the reader, but only, or rather, how I'm going to get my message across in a pleasing and clear way. I'm not going to try to use a vocabulary that's not mine, because I know what will happen is, some of the words will be just a little bit off.

"And in terms of writing itself, if they would just sit down and write something as a roadmap before sitting down at the computer and just putting a sentence into the thing and start writing that way. If you have a beginning, a middle and an end planned -- sometimes now we just simply sit down at the computer, we change things out, we treat paragraphs like interchangeable modules. It stops being organic with really firmly knit transitions between one paragraph that grows out of another. We put the last period on and we say we're done, without ever realizing that what we just wrote was a rough draft."

RS: Writing coach Paula LaRocque.

AA: You can learn much more about how American English works at our Web site, www.unsv.com/voanews/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

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