Paul Simon’s song, “Me and Julio, Down by the School Yard,” demonstrates by its title that neither “Julio” nor “I” spent very much time inside the school building. The phrase has an error, arguably two; do you see them?
The first one is covered elsewhere: “Me” probably should be “I.” Why? Because “I” is used for subjects, and “me” is used for objects. From this fragment of a title, we don’t know whether this pronoun is part of a subject or of an object inside the lyrics. Normally, when a pronoun is mentioned in isolation (that is, outside of its grammatical context), the common practice is to put it in the nominative (or “subject”) case. If you disagree, you have the benefit of the song itself, in which the full phrase, mentioned several times, is “Seein’ me and Julio down by the school yard.” That would confirm the use of “me” rather than “I.”
[Some people are so afraid of making the “I/me” mistake that they say “I” all the time, even when it is wrong. Don’t say, for example, “Seein’ Julio and I.” That is every bit as mistaken as “Julio and me were seen.”]
The second error is not so debatable. It has to do with the order used: Always mention yourself last when naming a series of persons. If your ego tempts you to put yourself first, just think of it as “climactic order,” in which the best is saved for last.
This rule also applies to the first person plural, “we.” The need for “we” in a series is fairly rare, so it sounds odd: “Julio and we were down by the school yard.” Nonetheless, it is correct. Most moderns would say, “Julio was down by the school yard with us,” and that is also correct.
Some authorities say that this is not a rule of grammar, but rather, a rule of rhetoric. In other words, the formal structure of the language does not require that the first person pronoun be last in a series; however, failure to do so is universally considered to be bad form in both American and British English.
Hey, it’s OK to have grammatical mistakes in poems and songs, especially if the usage contributes to the rhyme, rhythm or context. You would not expect two kids down in a California school yard, doing something that was “against the law,” to be concerned with correct syntax!
In all events, you should avoid constructions like “Me and so-and-so . . . ” not only because it is wrong, but also because it is a “social marker” (like “ain’t”): it exposes your inability (or unwillingness) to speak correctly. Usually, that’s the wrong impression you wish to make on other persons.
By the way, “you” also has a role in this rule. First, mention all of the third person nouns and pronouns; then go to the second person (“you”); and then end up with the first person pronoun. For example, instead of saying “You and Julio were down by the school yard,” start off with “Julio and you.” If you mention yourself, too, add it at the end: “Julio, you and I were down by the school yard.”
English has a category of adverbs called “intensifiers.” When attached to an adjective, most of them make the meaning of the adjective more intense (hence their name). Here is a short list: very, really, rather and quite. There are others, which fit into the traditional adverb role, but function as intensifiers nonetheless: Examples: overwhelmingly, unusually, uncommonly.
A few intensifiers might seem to be misnomers because they take away impact from the adjective instead of adding to it: Examples: pretty, fairly, a little, a bit, somewhat.
Consider this sentence:
The sandwich looks delicious.
Now repeat the sentence to yourself six times, each time adding one of the following intensifiers to “delicious”: very, really, rather, quite, fairly, pretty. Ask yourself which one gave the warmest endorsement, and which sentences seemed tepid.
In general: When writing, avoid intensifiers if possible. Try to think of an adverb that more precisely communicates the trait in question. Intensifiers are, by their nature, vague. Good writing is the opposite of vague; it is precise.
Awfully, Terribly & Frightfully: These words used to mean something related to “awful” (scary in the sense of causing awe) and “terrible” (causing fright). “Frightfully” is used as an intensifier, too, mainly in British English. (Example: “Frightfully kind of you to come.”) Try not to use them in phrases that involve things we like; reserve them (if at all) for things we do not want to praise.
“Pretty” started out as slang and has hung around American English for centuries. Even so, it is still considered very informal, and is best avoided in formal writing. After all, it means “attractive in a delicate way,” something short of “beautiful.” As an intensifier, it is ambiguous: some use it to be a synonym of “very,” while others use it to mean “not very.” It has come to mean “moderately.”
“Quite” means “completely,” even though many speakers use it to mean “very.” Thus, phrases like “quite so” and “quite lost” mean “completely true” and “completely disoriented.” Do not use it with adjectives that have no gradations of meaning, like “unique” or “dead.” “Quite dead” is nonsensical.
“Fairly” is a lukewarm intensifier. In olden times, “fair” meant “good looking, pleasant,” as in a fair-haired child or fair weather. But nowadays, like “pretty,” it has fallen into the middle between good and bad. For example, a “fair grade” is a “C”, not an “A” or a “B.” “Fair-to-middling” means of moderate or medium size, strength or quality.
“Really” has a common heritage with “very.” (Both started out as words meaning “in truth.”) Children often use it repeatedly, as in “really, really, really cold.” Yes, it is a useful intensifier, and one of the strongest ones; still, in all, if you use instead a solid and precise adverb, your writing and speaking would have greater impact and be easier to understand.
“Somewhat,” “a little,” and “a bit” dilute the meaning of the adjective to which they are attached. So does “rather,” except that sometimes it can mean “very” instead. Often, one of these intensifiers is employed for irony or understatement. For example, “He was rather drunk.” We can not tell if this means “a little” drunk or “very” drunk. You need to size up the speaker and the context to find your way here. The British use “rather” much more in the sense of “very” than do we Americans.
Rhetoric is the skill of using words efficiently, correctly and effectively. Rhetorical standards, then, relate to precision, concision, correctness and efficacy.
A characteristic of English is that it has grown mightily through the importation of countless phrases from other languages to fill gaps in the lexicon. Ironically, the best term in English for the precise word or phrase that fills the requirement of the occasion is “le mot juste” (French for “the exact word.”)
Well, whether you are speaking or writing, your quest should always be for “le mot juste” and not for just any vagabond word that seems to be at hand.
One such vagabond word, always at hand, is “get.” As a verb, it can mean just about anything: become (get fat), obtain (get an education), repair to (“get thee to a nunnery”), buy (get a new car), arrive (get home), mount (get on a bike), begin (get going), earn (get $8.50 an hour) and much, much more. Without exception, there will always be a more precise verb at hand than “get.”
Clear communication requires, then, the use of the most precise word or term available. As compared with approximate words (like “get” or “thing”), the specific and correct term will be more efficient in expression and more accurate in capturing verbally and communicating exactly what you are thinking.
Precision requires vocabulary. To build it, you should read; that is, read material that will improve your command of vocabulary, not degrade it. You also need to become a “looker-upper.” When you come across a new word, look it up right then. If you left your iPad at home, make a note of it on paper for later. You know, “paper” — that stuff we used to write things on in the old days?
Now, if you are really poor in the vocabulary department, you might think that a fairly common word is obscure, just because you don’t know what it means. That’s not the test! If you are so inclined, download Alan Beale’s word lists. It’s free. His “6 of 12” list contains 32,153 words, which includes words listed in at least 6 of the 12 source dictionaries of American English that he used. (Archaic, scientific-technical and all but widely-used slang are not included.) If the word is in that list, you probably should set about to learn it. (For example, “obsequious” is in the “6 of 12” list, but not “obsequy” (the noun form). That is found, however, in the “2 of 12” list.)
Having command of vocabulary does not imply using long words and high-sounding vocabulary just for show. On the contrary, competent communication requires simplicity — as much as the subject matter can permit. Famous leaders known for their communications skills did not use obscure words; they used simple words, and their speech was direct and specific. In short, their language was precise.
Likewise, be advised: Do not blithely consider all educated speech as acceptable rhetoric. Much academic communication should receive a failing grade. Often it is turgid, prolix and pompous. A good education provides no guarantee of clarity, neither of thought nor expression. Conversely, some uneducated speakers intuitively understand how to reach an audience. For example, Cesar Chavez, who helped to create the United Farm Workers in California, was an enormously effective speaker; yet he left school in 7th grade to work in the fields, so that his mother would not have to.
Economy with words is also a rhetorical standard. “Prolixity” is speaking or writing that uses an excess of words. Other antonyms of “concision” are: “verbosity” “wordiness,” grandiloquence” and “expatiation.” Concise language is also called “succinct,” “clear” and “plain language.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare ironically put the following now-famous phrase in the mouth of the wordy Polonius: “… brevity is the soul of wit … .”
Examples of prolixity:
“There is [a song] that [I would like to play].” Remove the dependent clause and just say [I would like to play a song]; that is, eliminate “there is” and “that,” converting the statement to a simple sentence.
“Due to the fact that . . . ” is both wordy and pompous. Just say “Because . . . “.
“At this point in time . . . ” is also wordy and pompous; just say “now.”
“Perhaps I can paraphrase that, that is, say the same thing in a different way . . . ” (no need to be repetitive).
The use of passive voice is a standard path to prolixity. Avoid it for its own sake: Active writing is more vivid and motivating than passive writing. But avoid passive writing also because it uses at least two more words than does active voice: the passive participle and the preposition of agency. (For example, compare “I shot the sheriff” with “The sheriff was shot by me.”)
A “barbarism” in this context is the use of an incorrect pronunciation, word or phrase. “Barbarous” means “crude.” The ancient Greeks called their Turkish neighbors “barbars” (βαρβαρος) because their language sounded like so much “blah-blah-blah” to them. (In Greek, this must have been “bar-bar-bar.”) Today, verbal barbarisms are deviations from standard usage in the choice of words.
Here are some examples:
Please loan me some money (“loan” is a noun; “lend” is the verb).
The reason why this happened is because . . . (“The reason is that . . . ” or “This happened because . . . ” but not both.)
Don’t pay me nonevermind. (“double negative and confusion of “mind” and “nevermind”)
Answering the question “How are you?” with “I am good.” (“Good” means, among other things, well-behaved and competent. “Well” as an adjective means “healthy.” The answer “good” makes no sense, whereas “well” is responsive to the question.)
Some authorities include imports from foreign languages as barbarisms (like “le mot juste!”), even though they may be widely accepted today. Other foreign-source imports remain as barbarisms, such as the many Pidgin words and phrases brought back from the Orient by GI’s (Example: “no can do”).
Everyone seems to agree that barbarisms are inevitable. One authority notes that good writers may be able to use them effectively (and hence, forgivably); however, even if a bad writer studiously avoids them, that alone will not improve his writing.
Like “barbarism,” a “solecism” is an error of language, but it is thought to be more a question of syntax (as in “Them are good!”) than in word use. Good writers can also use solecisms on occasion and to good effect, but the rhetorical standard is, as in the case of barbarisms, to avoid them.
An effective writer or speaker is one who accomplishes the purpose of the communication. If the writer’s aim is to persuade, then efficacy means “persuasive.” If the objective was to create sympathy or sadness, then efficacy means successfully jerking tears. If the purpose of the writing or speaking is to teach, then efficacy means that the readers or audience actually learn the intended lesson. This is not mysterious; however, many writers/speakers become so wrapped up in their own florid prose that they forget the basic aim of the project.
As a matter of tactics and technique, a good writer/speaker should make clear to the target audience what his or her purpose really is. (Occasionally an author may wish to assert a surface objective, while in truth pursuing hidden agenda; but that is not honest writing or speaking; it’s disingenuous.)
Sometimes a writer/speaker is his own worst enemy in forging an effective communication. Pomposity does not only obscure meaning, it renders the message ineffective because the target audience becomes distracted by the style. Often, pomposity is simply a smoke screen to obscure the fact that the speaker has little or nothing to say. Famously, William Gibbs McAdoo, a Democratic senator and political opponent of then (Republican) President Warren G. Harding, described Harding’s grandiloquence as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.”
Do you know a person who, like, inserts a word, like every time she, like, tries to say something? “Like” should be extirpated from your speech — whether formal or informal. It is nonsense, and it makes the speaker seem to be very, very stupid and immature. If you are not stupid, why would you ever want to appear to be, especially in such a stupid way? When used as in the example above, “like” takes the place of “er” or “um,” neither of which is very elegant. Both, however, are preferable to “like.”
The “like” mannerism also infests the verbs “to be” and “to say,” as in “He asked me out, and I was like ‘I doan wanna go out.’ And then he was like all pathetic.” If you have been to school you should know better than to speak this way.
Some people kinda decorate their speech with needless “kinda’s” as a way of softening what they really are trying to say. They don’t want to be pinned down, so instead of saying “It looks like rain,” they say “It kinda looks like rain.” “Kinda” is meaningless. If it’s worth saying, it’s not “kinda worth saying,” so just go to the point and take a risk. If you want to fudge, use “might,” the perfectly good word in English that expresses uncertainty.
Speaking of fudging, you will hear from time-to-time the “real quick” fudge: “Can I ask you a question real quick?” Usually, “real quick” does not mean “really quickly” (the grammatically correct way of saying it), but rather, it is an afterthought to try (lamely) to persuade the person being asked that whatever-it-is will not take up very much time. Of course, both parties know that it is not a promise to be quick, neither is it an indirect apology for taking up another person’s time. It is a fudge. Don’t say it; but if you do, at least be aware that it is a mannerism, and probably an insincere remark.
“See what I’m sayin’?”
This mannerism is in the same category as “Know what I mean?” and “You know.” The truth is, it is just filler talk, uttered more by habit than by thinking, and designed to make some sort of noise while you figure out what (if anything) you are going to say next. A few speakers do ask, “Do you follow me?” or “Do you understand?” and they are being thoughtful and sincere; but mainly, the “see what I’m saying” crowd is just headed off in a slangy direction with little or no content.
(Subtitle for this post: “Avoid Clichés Like the Plague”)
“Pet peeve” is a cliché. “Pet” in this context must mean “favorite.” But “peeve” is an irritation, annoyance, vexation, or exasperation. In context, it usually means something that most frequently annoys or is most frequently noticed; yet, the first word suggests preference, not frequency. It is a phrase that does not mean what it says. The irony is assuredly lost on most of those who resort to this expression.
“Peeve” is itself a fairly new word, fabricated from the adjective “peevish,” which means having an irritable disposition. If you think about it, “peeve” does not identify a “thing,” a “something” that irritates you; it describes you, or at least your attitude towards it.
Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with a cliché, any more than there is anything inherently wrong with wearing an old pair of sneakers: Maybe they aren’t the prettiest, nor the most functional, but they work — more or less.
The problem with clichés is that they encourage your reader or listener to stop thinking, in much the same way that you stop driving very attentively when you turn onto a familiar street.
Avoiding clichés is a tactic for making what you say more interesting for your reader or audience. Clichés, by their very nature, are dull, banal and unoriginal. They suppress thought rather than stimulate it. Good writing and speaking is creative and expressive. Frequent lapses into clichés create a style of communication that seems immature, sophomoric.
If clichés contain accepted wisdom, they are called “adages” or “proverbs,” and are then graduated into a more respectable category.
Personally, I prefer to limit the term “cliché” to trite, hackneyed banalities, and not to folk expressions or aphorisms, which actually have some content for the mind.
Here are two examples:
“Pride goeth before a fall.”
“Diamond in the rough.”
“Pride goeth before a fall” is not a cliché; it’s a proverb. “Diamond in the rough” is a cliché. A long time ago it was a creative way of describing a person, but now, it’s all worn out.
Of course, one generation’s insight can become the next generation’s cliché. Therefore, context will help to guide you in deciding when a string of words is so familiar that it should be abandoned.
Here are a few examples of clichés — phrases that you probably should never write or utter without a wink.
all’s fair in love and war
as old as the hills
avoid [something] like the plague
beat around the bush
bring home the bacon
can’t fix stupid
dead as a door-nail
give 110 percent
gut-wrenching (as applied to pain)
handwriting on the wall
head over heels in love
in the nick of time
love at first sight
low hanging fruit
pot calling the kettle black
read between the lines
scared out of my wits
thick as thieves
think outside the box
time flies when you’re having fun
time will tell
tip of the iceberg
to tell the truth . . .
well-worn (as applied to a cliché)
what goes around comes around
wrong side of the bed
As an extra bonus, here are the lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan’s platitude song from Iolanthe (premiered in 1882). Though it was written over a century ago, the clichés are still very recognizable, even for Americans:
If you go in, You’re sure to win –
Yours will be the charming maidie:
Be your law the ancient saw,
“Faint heart never won fair lady!”
Every journey has an end –
When at the worst affairs will mend –
Dark the dawn when day is nigh –
Hustle your horse and don’t say die!
While the sun shines make your hay –
Where a will is, there’s a way –
Beard the lion in his lair –
None but the brave deserve the fair!
Nothing venture, nothing win –
Blood is thick, but water’s thin –
In for a penny, in for a pound –
It’s Love that makes the world go round!