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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Prosaic Diction

To express a really distinctive, fresh idea, you need a really precise sense of what words mean. If you reach for a word and pull the wrong one off the shelf, your idea is likely to sound like everyone else's. Don't say pliant when you mean labile, in other words. When you fall back too often on pretentious but ill-used vocabulary, your reader will tune out, stop paying close attention.

Individuality, then, is not using words in new and unique ways, but using them in the way everyone else should, but doesn't. I knew a guy who wrote that, if a certain poet had not meant his poems to be read in order, he would have chosen a way "more innocuous" than Roman numerals to arrange them. But Roman numerals never hurt anyone. What this person meant to write is "less conspicuous."

Another scholar I knew would write the same kind of sentence to describe any poet, like "So-and-so uses poetic imagery to explore basic life issues." This is a parody, but I could give you real examples almost as bad. If you took away the name of the poet, you would have to say that the sentence is true of virtually any poet who every wrote.

Prose should be tactful, sensitive, responsive, astute, precise. Expression comes from precision.

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