America’s Most Prevalent Writing Flaw
TIME magazine used the mutant modifier several times in its August 18, 2014 issue, when it sloppily stated: “Megan Fox teams up with….” and, again in that same issue one read: “SPEEDING UP SECURITY.” Please re-read those two news magazine phrases and note that, in each phrase, one word is utterly superfluous. One word in each example only adds clutter to a clear and simple phrase. Why didn’t we read, simply, “Megan Fox teams with…” and “SPEEDING SECURITY”?
Once a reader begins to recognize these intrusive modifiers, he or she begins to stumble over each offending modifier. They absolutely don’t belong. Further,
the student of writing can learn to avoid their use by simply reading enough examples of the flaw and indulging in a few practice exercises.
Kindly read the following quotes and note how easily you can identify the intruders.
“Amazon also rents out space on huge computer servers….”
The Daily Item (newspaper), 4/22/11, p. A4
“Zuroff narrowed down the list of possible suspects….”
David Rising (AP), The Daily Item, 10/2/14
“Count them up!”
2015 mailing from the American Automobile Association
“Out where?” “Down where?” “Up where?” You should have been asking those questions. If you were asking those queries, you are about ready to eliminate the mutant modifiers from your own writing, unless you haven’t been using them. Some writers likely rarely use them; naturally writing uncluttered sentences intentionally or by nature.
Try these additional examples:
“AGING: CAN WE SLOW IT DOWN?”
Cover blurb. DISCOVER magazine, 12/84
“Words to Watch Out For”
Article title, George F. Will, Newsweek, 11/25/85
“We will do everything possible to help clear up the matter promptly.”
Correspondence, Donald Cameron, RCA Music Service, undated
“Light Up Your Holiday”
Songbook title, The Express (newspaper), Lock Haven, PA, 12/21/2000
“I was a graduate English student… and I had packed up quite a few boxes….”
Robert E. Curtis, READER’S DIGEST, 4/99
“I went straight to Washington and dropped off a job application….”
Jack Anderson, PEACE, WAR, AND POLITICS, p. 59
“Woolley opened up the usual trenches in the mound of Ur….”
C. W. Ceram, GODS, GRAVES AND SCHOLARS, p. 309
“They would soon be fed, and then they would be tied up for the night.”
Louis L’Amour, THE WARRIOR’S PATH, p. 416
“whittled down the cost by cutting out all but the essential items.”
OXFORD AMERICAN DICTIONARY, 1980, p. 794
Yes, the Oxford lexicographers might have omitted two mutant modifiers and left us with a briefer and crisper dictionary entry.
“The Helenes had opened up a trade route….”
Will Durant, THE LIFE OF GREECE, 1939, p. 234
“Did this 16th century psychic map out the future of this century?”
Michael A. Snyder (undocumented source)
“Instead, the dinosaurs may have dug nests, and spaced themselves out
carefully to avoid crushing the next generation. The next day the desert
skies opened up and dumped a surprise rain on Auca Mahuevo. Three of
Coria’s technicians rushed out to the egg quarry….”
Thomas Hayden, NEWSWEEK, 7/12/99, p. 45
“We all know how that’s worked out.”
The Week, 5/26/06, p.14
“He also wanted to capture Leningrad and join up with the Finns….”
William Shirer, The Rise and fall of the Third Reich,
New York, 1960, p. 857
“Halder copied it out word for word….” (ibid., p. 857)
“To back up his photographs….”
Elizabeth Winthrop, Smithsonian, 9/06, p. 20
“In an effort to bolster up the confession….”
Ralph Roeder, The Man of the Renaissance,
TIME Reading Program, Special Edition, 1966, p.121
“How do you soften up militants….”
Lisa Beyer, Time, 8/7/06, p.27
Honestly, I don’t look for these examples. They simply trip me as I’m reading, breaking my line of thought and causing minor frustration pains. Their frequency is surprising. The ones offered here are just a representative sample of those which I’ve noticed and/or collected in the past few decades. From all kinds of sources, I’ve read about soil being packed down, something being used up, plans being mapped out, an industry being built up, a paper being written out, verses being copied out, allegations being checked out, trees being cut down and piled up, funds being freed up and a problem continuing on!
Of course, information might be written up or down or out, with up being the most overworked of the mutant modifiers. It is thoughtlessly added to almost any imaginable verb.
Have you any notion as to how long critics have been identifying the mutant modifiers?
Some years ago, one of my sons gave me a copy of an old book on proper speech and writing. It was entitled, Five Hundred Mistakes Corrected. It was published in 1882 in New York. The publisher was James Miller. It was identified as being the thirty-second edition! It is also related that the book was “Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1855….” Unfortunately, the volume cites specific mistakes rather than offering general rules; but about one dozen of the five-hundred corrections listed offered advice on the misuse of modifiers. Two examples follow:
Number 463 – Some persons talk of “continuing on:” in what other
direction would it be possible to continue?
Number 216 – “Iron sinks down in water.” Leave out down.
If this awkward usage of modifiers was condemned more than one and one-half centuries ago, why is it ignored today, when the practice is so prevalent? One might suggest four reasons:
Careful writers likely avoid the practice with little thought and with only a rare slip of the pen or the word processor.
There is the tendency to become less formal in our writing.
It is obviously difficult to excise, from our writing, intrusions which are
rather prevalent in our speech.
The problem seems to be overlooked in our teaching of writing.
Not only is the problem overlooked; but some of the extraneous modifiers might even appear on the pages of the very publications which are devoted to the writing craft! Here are several annoying sentence fragments culled from the last place where one should expect to find them.
“I started out, some time back….”
John M. Wilson, Writer’s Digest, 8/85, p. 68
“The days of just adding nudity or raunchy language to spice up original cable programming…”
John M. Wilson, Writer’s Digest, 1-85, p.67
“If this is acceptable to you, please make up a rough outline…”
John Wood, Senior Editor, Modern Maturity, private correspondence,
“When the technical problems are cleared up, your story will merit…”
Reading Report form, used by Manuscripts, a literary service in Dayton, Washington.
“Cleared up,” indeed! Writing may be casual; but it should never be sloppy. Superfluous modifiers suggest sloppiness. They suggest an aversion to concentrating while proofreading. That’s why it’s always surprising to stumble on needless modifiers while reading pieces that deal with the craft of writing. We even encounter mutant modifiers in such a highly-regarded book as The Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 1959) . Even here we encounter such anomalies as
“Do not dress words up by adding…” (p 62) and “When you use metaphor, do not mix it up.” (p. 67).
One can’t imagine the fictional spy, James Bond, being offered a mixed drink and requesting that it be “Shaken up; not stirred up.” We can stop saddling robust verbs with worthless modifiers if we make the simplest effort. If we remove the mutant modifiers from our own writing, teachers will begin to emphasize the change, writers will embrace the change and editors will begin to demand it. Allow me to close this bit of writing advice with one facetious remark: Soon, we’ll be able to say, as one of the world’s great writers once wrote, “All’s well that ends up well.”
§ § §
So, writers, are you guilty of using this most prevalent writing flaw? I remember an old saying "that is something about which I would not put up..." Yikes! One thing that struck me, though. The phrase for James Bond has become so common in use that it is immediately recognizable as a problem. I'm not so sure this can be said for many of the examples...
Guy mentions that often we can automatically ask "where?" which I tended to do with some of the examples. "Do not dress words up by adding..." For me, this is indeed an adverb when we say, routinely, "I'll be dressing up for the dance." Meaning that something special will be worn. Can a modifier, "up" not come to stand in for the actual modifier of dressing formal or dressing in a gown, or dressing in a tux... When can a word "up" come to mean a substitute for a word(s)?
Its an informal way of asking the well being of someone you meet.
But I agree that the language is becoming too sloppy. The word "Whassup?" has comes into wide use and it gets actually funny, because so many will say it differently, but want to be hip in using it... Whatsup...Wassup...Sup? Some I have yet to even figure out what letters are being used... Given Guy's article...that whole mess should be eliminated anyway! Right?
Thanks so much, Guy, for getting us thinking...At my age, I admit,
I'm Still Learning! G