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Word Play 

The quandaries that keep wordsmiths awake at night

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When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, Hamlet replies dissemblingly, "Words, words, words." I take Prince Hamlet literally. I know how a word can distract from sentence sense in the same way a selfie upstages whatever is in the background. That said, I am wondering if "dissemblingly" in the first sentence is distracting. As a wordsmith of sorts, I am uneasy with it perched at the top of the column like a parrot on a wire amid a flock of pigeons. I could delete "dissemblingly." Doing so eliminates an adverb (disparaged by Stephen King as a paver on the road to hell!) while yielding to the wisdom of Rule No. 14 in Strunk and White's iconic book, The Elements of Style: Avoid fancy words. The resultant wordsmithing twofer is "a consummation devoutly to be wished," to invoke Hamlet once more. On the other hand, "dissemble" nails Hamlet's mindset with a single word. That is a minor achievement according to Strunk and White's Rule No. 6: Do not overwrite. Hamlet reacts to the crafty Polonius from behind a cultivated, false front. The prince does not hedge, evade, fake or pretend. He dissembles. It's this lack of exact synonyms, a characteristic of the English lexicon, that makes wordsmithing almost as fun as Comic-Con. Another twofer resides in a revision that pivots on "Hamlet dissembles." Such quandaries as these keep wordsmiths awake at night.

My abiding interest in diction spikes every January as lexicographers announce the word of the year. Merriam-Webster.com publishes the most looked-up word—"culture" in 2014—while the Oxford Dictionary shortlists words that "reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of a particular year and have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance." "Vape," a verb associated with the use of e-cigarettes, topped Oxford's 2014 list. Runners-up included "slacktivism" and "bae." (Credit the latter to Pharrell Williams' "Come Get It Bae.") Also naming a word of the year is the American Dialect Society. For the first time, its honors go to a Twitter hashtag, "#blacklivesmatter," a "succinct social message" following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

By coincidence, the new year finds wordsmiths buzzing about a recent book by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker titled The Sense of Style. As I studied it, I crosschecked Pinker's examination of grammatical nuance with Strunk and White's 1959 book. Ten-million copies later, despite a little criticism from Pinker, its rules for composition are still "clear, brief and bold." The authors are as prescriptive as IRS agents: Do this with commas; don't do that in the passive voice.

Pinker devotes one-third of his book to prescriptivism, "telling right from wrong," but he self-identifies as a descriptive linguist more interested in "how language is usually used rather than prescribing how it ought to be used." He finds objective truth in usage. Writing right is important to me, so I concentrated on Pinker's guidelines for using "that" and "which," serial commas and such. Many rules I learned in English classes are specious, according to Pinker. In fact you may end a sentence with a preposition, and you may begin one with a conjunction. And if you want to boldly go, you may split an infinitive without being dumped on! Some conventions apply only to formal writing. This column is "formal," so I am careful with "presently" (it means "soon"); I don't use "quote" as a noun; I mull "they" as a replacement for "he or she"; and I write "data are" not "data is."

Granted, most people find these points of prescriptivism unimportant. They are useful in disputes with copy editors and English teachers, but that's about it. With its snapshots of language in flux, descriptivism has more immediacy. Who doesn't look forward to the word-of-the-year lists? A year's worth of coinages—the likes of "sexting," "swiftboating" and "crowdfunding"—"replenish the lexical richness of a language," Pinker says. As these neologisms enter the language, other words fall by the wayside. No "jalopies" at the "drive-in" anymore, and the World War II acronym "snafu" is almost beyond reach just as the Utah Legislature convenes. Other words evolve. In my lifetime, "Mohammedanism" has become "Islam," spinning off "Islamism" and "Islamofacism" in the process. The plural nouns "data" and "media" are tracking the evolution of "agenda" by taking a singular verb as often as not. Twenty percent of English verbs start out as nouns or adjectives, Pinker says. Think of the participles googling, texting, scrapbooking and journaling.

My prescriptivist side is repelled by those noun mutants, even if the damned things are trending. That I refuse to use them is foolish self-indulgence because, as my descriptivist side concedes, widespread use has given them legitimacy. I should be as willing to embrace change as UDOT is. Confronted by speeding on intra-urban freeways, UDOT upped the limit from 65 to 70 mph, adjusting the rules to comport with actual practice (of lawbreaking!). It's an ass-backward deal, but that's the way it goes. Rules, conventions, guidelines, prescriptivism—whatever word you choose—are foundational. You need them to regulate traffic, and you need them "to provide a stable platform for style and grace" when weaving words into sentences, Pinker says.

But Hamlet is remembered for what he said, not for what he wrote. Words provided an emotional release for him as they do for everyone. Most of us lack his style and grace, but many, like me, are skilled in lalochezia—a fancy word for the use of profanity to relieve stress and pain. With the Utah Legislature back in session this week, a cascade of snafus and aw-shits is sure to follow. L-a-l-o-c-h-e-z-i-a spells relief.

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