Overused book-review words

Bob Harris blogs his "Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing." By which he means words that appear too often in book reviews.

Aside: I immediately assumed that the title was a reference to George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" monologue, also known as "Seven Dirty Words," and sometimes misquoted as "Seven Deadly Words." Turns out I'm not the only one who associates the phrase "seven deadly words" with Carlin; as of this writing, if you Google the phrase (in quotation marks), a Carlin monologue is the first result. At any rate, whether or not Harris meant to refer to the Carlin monologue, his "seven deadly words" are kind of the opposite: they're words that he sees as overused.

And I'm puzzled by almost all of the ones that he and his readers list, because they pretty much all seem perfectly reasonable to me. Perhaps it's just that I don't read very many book reviews?

I may be a little defensive about this, too, 'cause several of the words (such as "compelling" and "intriguing") are words I use all the time.

Anyway, mixed in with the distaste for certain words being used too often, I detect what I think is a certain attitude toward writing in general. Harris starts it off by quoting Wilson Follett (author of Modern American Usage: A Guide and other books) as saying "The best critics [...] are those who use the plainest words[....]" A commenter refers to a word as being "a product of laziness and lack of imagination"; another refers to "great deal of sloppy, lazy writing going on"; another quotes The Elements of Style as referring to critics using words "whose only virtue is that they are exceptionally nimble and can escape from the garden of meaning"; another says reviewers should use more "language every person can relate to."

All of which makes we think that perhaps what's really going on is a complaint about use of words that the objectors see as hifalutin. Reviews, the argument would appear to go, should be written in plain language so that plain-speakin' plain ol' folks can understand 'em.

Which I totally disagree with. I'm not saying book reviews should be hard to understand, but to me, nearly all of the words these folks are complaining about are pretty ordinary words that have pretty ordinary meanings. Is "readable" really meaningless? Are metaphorical descriptions, like "luminous," really so awful? Is the use of the word "smart" to describe a book really so cryptic? They don't seem so to me.

(The one criticism in the list (of those I read) that does seem useful and interesting to me is the idea that male reviewers often refer to a particular feminist poet's work as "engaging"; that sounds to me like potentially the same kind of politically problematic attempted praise as referring to an African-American as "articulate." On the other hand, there are plenty of other contexts where "engaging" is perfectly good praise.)

I suppose part of my reaction is that I have a poor ear for cliches. There are several phrases that I use regularly and see nothing wrong with but that critique groups have told me are cliches to be (yes) eschewed. So maybe overuse just doesn't bother me; maybe I'm deaf to that (um) nuance of language and usage.

And, of course, lists of pet peeves don't have to be rational.

Speaking of rational, I have to object to the other part of the quote from Follett: "[...] and who make their taste rational by describing actions rather than by reporting or imputing feelings." Really? Reviewers are supposed to have rational tastes, having nothing to do with their feelings? I apparently don't live in the same world of reviewers as Follett and Harris; I often rather like learning about a reviewer's feelings about a work.

3 Responses to “Overused book-review words”

  1. Vardibidian

    I also disliked the note (and, as is my habit, didn’t read the comments at all), and similarly wondered if my dislike was largely feuled by defensiveness. After all, not only to I use the word eschew in writing, I use it in speech. So right off the bat, I am both one of the people he complains about and I don’t exist. So sad.

    I also will just say once again that Strunk’s nasty little booklet has done a tremendous amount of harm in teaching people phoney limitations of writing. This idea that there is only one good way to write criticism (and that way is to Omit Needless Words) is on the face of it preposterous, wrong-headed, and dangerous. Boo! Boooo! I eschew such narrow-minded and conformist views of our language. I eschew them! I eschew them all up!


  2. jere7my

    V., I think you mean “I escheeeeeeewwwwww your milkshake!”

    What I got from the article was this: don’t use words that are near-synonyms for common words just because they seem pregnant with mysterious extra meaning. When you examine them closely, the extra meaning may not in fact match your intent. When you think of the strength of the verb “compel” and the current weakness of the adjective “compelling” this makes a certain amount of sense.

    Kendra sees this in her students’ writing all the time: they use “Murgatroyd states that…” instead of “Murgatroyd says…” because they think “states” gives their papers more weight, without actually meaning anything more than “says”. States is fine once in a while, but if it pops all the time you have to ask, “What’s wrong with ‘says’? Why is this statistical anomaly of word frequency appearing? Does it help convey meaning, or is it just making the paper glossier?”

  3. Michael

    I, for one, am glad to have Bob Harris confirm that he neither muses over his writing nor crafts his posts with care. That would explain why I don’t find his writing, well, compelling.


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