RARE IS the day that I do not find a piece of bad writing in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post, or Globe and Mail. This statement, I am confident, could be applied with justice to any newspaper of your choosing. The badness is delivered in many varieties, and in fairness I must observe that some errors are a product of working conditions, deadlines and the under-resourcing of bureaus and so on. Most bad writing however has as its root a more troubling fact: its creators do not know what words mean.
Here is an example of what I have I mind, extracted from last week’s New York Times:
When the teenage fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson announced last November that she was joining forces with the editor Jane Pratt to start a magazine modeled after Pratt’s much-mourned Sassy, the blogosphere lit up with excitement. For a generation of women, Sassy — with its indie ethos and straight talk about weighty topics like feminism and sex — was a seminal magazine: it not only changed their expectations of media, but it also changed how they saw themselves.
Okay, okay. The badness in this instance is innocent and mild, and one could perhaps be forgiven for missing it. Nonetheless, the thought of a seminal feminist magazine made me laugh out loud, and I really don’t think it was meant to. If the author of this paragraph had intentionally planted the seed, then the result would have been mere cleverness, without a point beyond the obvious matter of sex. What makes this passage risible is the apparent fact that its author herself neither intends nor even detects the pun. Seminal means only what seminal in common usage means, that is to say “the first.” This is a case, I would argue, of laughing at and not with.
There are far worse examples to be had, and in some cases the badness of writing has behind it an ugly motive, such as an attempt at deception or the defence of something which is indefensible. However, here I am considering bad writing which is politically and intellectually innocent, the result of ignorance. Many pros don’t know what words mean because they do not know the Greek and Latin and Germanic roots of contemporary English, and they haven’t digested enough of the language. Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton and Samuel Johnson and the OED do not inform their uses of language. (Consider the near-universal employment of media as a singular noun, an error that someone familiar with the declensions of Latin nouns is less likely to make.) A writer unacquainted with a language’s past will apprehend its surface only and will therefore be oblivious to the material real-world character of words. As evidence that many writers today toil only on the surface, I submit for consideration the common misuse of literally. Words are multi-dimensional, having both a denotative and connotative aspect. A word both constitutes, and is constituted by, metaphor. Necessary to good writing is an active awareness of one’s metaphors.
There is a simple way to assess one’s familiarity with language. Ask yourself the following: as I am writing, do my words summon forth a world of material objects? Do I see the tree as I write eradicate, and is the hearth in focus? Does pedagogy call to mind the vision of a boy being led to school? Do I see sheep when I write egregious, the god Pan in panic, or the potsherd in the hand as I type ostracize? Those of us in the writing trade who compose without digits in the soil of language are at risk of all manner of error, but especially of imprecision, abstraction, lifeless phrasing, and inappropriate or mixed metaphors.
The desired outcome of writing must always be the clarity of an expression. To achieve this one must know what words mean, not only on their surface but deeper down. By deeper down I have in mind not only the material origin of a word but also the journey it has undertaken. Both the origin and the usages over time adhere to the individual word, so long as there are literate readers and writers. Of course, the day may arrive on which there is no one able to see the semen in seminal, and beyond that the seed in semen. (The day had arrived some time ago when many were unable to account for the tossing of rice at weddings: I used to enjoy putting the image into their minds of a public group orgasm.) When that day arrives, you will have no cause to be mindful of the words you have just read. The roots, having long been untended, will be of no issue. Language will concern only the surface appearance of things, and writers will produce copy accordingly.