Thursday, June 19, 2008

Impact's effect

By Jacqueline Damian

When is a noun not a noun? When it’s pressed into service as a verb, of course – like the word impact, verbified by (I suspect) lazy writers flummoxed by the intricacies of effect and affect. How much easier to sidestep the whole problem by just using impact.

Turning a noun into a verb is nothing new in the English language, of course. Think picnic and picnic, to cite just one example appropriate to the season. But it seems as if suddenly I’m spotting this trend everywhere -- and it’s not always a pretty sight.

First there was a CEO’s use of the term “scholarshiping” in a Newsweek column about corporate-sponsored (and sometimes questionable) student aid. “ ‘Scholarshiping sends a positive message, one of good will,’ says Brickfish CEO Brian Dunn.” Ugh! Are busy execs so pressed for time that they must opt for one word, albeit bogus, instead of two legitimate ones? Is it really so much harder to say that “giving scholarships sends a positive message”?

The following week Newsweek delivered another example when Steven Levy, my favorite technology writer, repeatedly used the word “friend” as a verb in a column about social-networking sites. Now, Levy can write. Specifically, he can write comprehensibly and entertainingly about technology, something that eludes many, if not most, tech beat reporters.

So why did he have to say things like “While Facebook doesn’t want to dictate rules of friending behavior to its users…” and “One MySpace exec has even surprised himself by friending a potato,” when there’s a perfectly good English word that would do the job? Is befriending too old-fashioned?

Levy might be excused for simply repeating a term that’s widely used in the industry he covers. But how to explain the doctor interviewed about the 1918 flu pandemic on the PBS series American Experience? Speaking about strategies for containing the virus, she opined that “you can’t barrier yourself from being exposed.” Let’s be kind and assume she meant barricade.

Then, in the June 16 issue of Newsweek, biology teacher Sally G. Hoskins turned it all around. In “My Turn,” a column of reader-submitted essays, Hoskins wrote of her frustrations in trying to get kids fired up about biology. At one point, to underscore the subject's urgency, she had her students imagine what would happen if they were laid low by a dread disease.

“In the event that the doctor has two minutes to discuss the situation and to describe the biology underlying the disease so that you can look up clinical trials,” she told them, “you are going to need to know what a cell is and how disease can impact it.”

Ugh, there we go again, with impact as a verb. This is one battle that’s long been lost. But wait:

“It was a pretty good rant,” Hoskins confides, “aside from my use of ‘impact’ as a verb.”

Bingo! Now, there’s a woman after my own heart.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The medium really is the message

Note: I hectored my former EE Times editorial colleague Jackie Damian into contributing her insights to Big Red Pencil. Herewith, her first entry!

By Jackie Damian

Everyone who writes – no wait, let’s make that everyone who reads (in other words, everyone) – should hie over to The Atlantic site and check out the July/August cover story, titled “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?
Author Nicholas Carr pretty much answers that not-so-rhetorical question with a resounding yes, describing how the Internet – in the way it delivers quick snippets of info and discourages concentrated reading – is actually reshaping our brains and the way we think. “Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged,” Carr writes. He cites both anecdotal evidence from bloggers who can’t concentrate on any articles longer than a few paragraphs, to research on neural information processing: This is your brain on Google.

Conspiracy theorists, take note:

“The faster we surf across the Web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link – the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interests to drive us to distraction.”

Perhaps the most subversive thing anyone who loves the written word could do this summer, therefore, would be to put away the laptop and open "Ulysses."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Oh so trendy

I returned today from a vacation of relaxin', readin' (Mark Helprin's "A Soldier of the Great War," for the second time) and writin' (notes for a novel that's beginning to congeal in my soupy head) to discover the editing business still needs editors.
I Googled the phrase "passing fad" to find 345,000 citations. That means that 345,000 times some writer didn't care enough to think before putting fingers to keyboard. While not strictly redundant, the word "fad" means a "temporary fashion," so a fad is, by definition, passing. Would that we should think as much before writing as we do before stepping off a city curb. By the way, I was moved to this demi-diatribe by a Moira Herbst's BusinessWeek article: Energy Efficiency: A Passing Fad?
On a different note, I've enlisted the help of a longtime editorial colleague of mine, Jackie Damian, to contribute to this blog from time to time. (I'd love for it to be daily, but she does have a real life!) Jackie is one of the finest editors I've ever worked with. I've seen her transform the unintelligible into the articulate and the workable into the insightful. Her first contribution comes later this week.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rita Moreno for president

College commencement speeches can be thumb-suckers highlighted by the occasional paper airplane drifting over bored, enrobed graduates. Rita Moreno, however, struck a blow for righteousness this weekend with her speech at Mills College in the East Bay. The only problem is the speech probably should have been given as the Class of 2008 entered Mills, rather than exited.

How we look is a matter of personal preference and is really rather easy to deal with, but — language, language — which is so central and important to one’s success is too often sorely lacking.

I am constantly saddened and dismayed by the way in which we have come to torture the English language. ... College students who use the term “he goes” in place of “he says” and whose sentences are riddled with “you know?” and who cannot complete a sentence without inserting the word “like” at least three times. ... My advice: Stop it this minute.


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