A Word, Please: Putting it in puffy terms

I recently stumbled across an old YouTube video in which the late writer David Foster Wallace was asked about what he calls "puff words" — terms like "prior to" and "subsequent to."

Wallace's answer was striking. He didn't qualify it with "Well, there's some debate, but …" or "Depending on the context …" or "Though we should be careful not to label the practice as 'wrong' …"

No, Wallace didn't mince words. Using "utilize" instead of "use," he said, "in 99 cases out of 100 is just stupid." More syllables, Wallace said, add up to nothing but puffery: "Why say 'prior to' instead of 'before,'" he asked, "when the latter lets you say the same thing in fewer words? … Why did you just take up one-third of a second of my lifetime making me parse 'at this time' rather than just saying 'now'?"

Of course, that's just Wallace's opinion. But it's also mine. Perhaps there's some scholar out there who disagrees and has published extensive research showing the benefits of inefficient, puffed-up words and expressions. But no one could read it anyway. So the keep-it-short-and-sweet contingent has the floor.

The thing that bothers me most about "puff" words and terms like "utilize," "terminate," "presently," "previous to" and "entered into an agreement to" is that they make the writer sound uncertain of his own message. Someone who's really confident in what he has to say won't hesitate to use "use," "end," "now," "before" and "agree to." Only people who are hesitant to come right out and say something resort to abstract, less committal terms. They feel their information lacks authority, so they rely on stuffy, formal-sounding language to give it false authority.

To the reader, these puff words come out as white noise: "Prior to utilizing the proper instrument for the act of brushing, the dental patient should utilize floss." That whole brain-numbing mess really means "Floss before you brush." Yet many readers would miss this message entirely, perhaps because they fell asleep before the end of the sentence.

Puff terms can be jargon like "incentivize." They can be droning and unnecessary figures of speech like "furthermore to." They can be inefficient alternatives to simple words, for example "due to the fact that" standing in for a simple "because." Or they can be "nominalizations," or so-called buried verbs, which occur when you make an action a thing. For example, when you "make the determination" instead of "determine," "arrive at a decision" instead of "decide" or "reach an agreement" instead of "agree."

Here are some more of the most common offenders and what to do when you can spot them in your own writing. "In conjunction with" often means just "with." "Previous to" and "prior to" mean "before." And "subsequent to" is a sorry substitute for "after."

If you're ever tempted to write "fabricate," try "make" in its place. "For John's part" adds nothing you wouldn't get from plain-old "for John." William Strunk opposed "used for fuel purposes" in place of "used for fuel," and his advice applies to any "for purposes of" construction.

If you ever see "the totality of," you could replace it with "all," or better yet just delete it altogether.

If you ever want to write that you "have the ability to" do something, you have, no doubt, overlooked the word "can."

"Terminate" is an awfully annoying way to say "end." "Presently" almost never beats "now." And "a sufficient quantity" is the most tedious way imaginable of saying "enough."

Whenever you notice any of these expressions in your own writing or speech, take a moment to consider simpler alternatives. Chances are, you'll end up with a message that carries a lot more punch.

June Casagrande is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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