December 12: Doublespeak Day

Today is the birthday of linguist William D. Lutz, who was born in Wisconsin in 1940.  Lutz has dedicated his life to combating doublespeak, language that is ambiguous or intentionally obscure or distorted.  

In his 1989 book Doublespeak, Lutz defines four categories of doublespeak, to illustrate how it is “designed to alter our perception of reality and corrupt our thinking.”

The first kind is euphemism, where“an inoffensive or positive word or phrase [is] used to avoid a harsh, unpleasant, or distasteful reality.” Certainly we use euphemismsappropriately when we are sensitive to the connotations of words and to thesensitivity of others.  For example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry yourfather is dead,” we say, “I’m sorry your father passed away.” When euphemisms are used to intentionally mislead, however, they areclassified as doublespeak.  For example, in 1984 the U.S. State Department wanted to avoid any discussion of government-sanctioned “killings” in its annual report on human rights, so it substituted the euphemistic phrase“unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life.”

The second kind of doublespeak is jargon,“the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, such as doctors, lawyers [or] engineers . . .“  Jargon is useful and appropriate as a kind of verbal shorthand when used among the members of a profession. However, it is inappropriate when it is “used not to express but impress” or when it is used to hide rather than reveal the truth.  For example, when a National Airlines 727 crashed in 1978, killing three passengers, the airline covered up the tragedy with jargon, calling it an“involuntary conversion of a 727.”

The third kind of doublespeak is gobbledygook or bureaucratese, “piling on words, or overwhelming the audience with words, the bigger the words and the longer the sentences the better.”  One example of this comes from Jesse Moore, a NASA official, who said the following when he was asked to assess the shuttle program after the Challenger disaster in1986:  

I think our performance in terms of the liftoff performance and in terms of the orbital performance, we knew more about the envelope we were operating under, and we have been pretty accurately staying in that.  And so I would say the performance has not by designdrastically improved.  I think we have been able to characterize theperformance more as a function of our launch experience as opposed to itimproving as a function of time. (1)

The fourth kind of doublespeak is inflated language, using words “to make the ordinary seem extraordinary; to make everyday things seem impressive . . . .”  Inflated language is especially prevalent in the language of advertising.  At Starbucks, for example, you can’t buy a small, medium, or large coffee; instead, to make these common categories sound more impressive they are called tall, grande, venti, and trenta. Likewise, car dealerships do not sell “used cars”; instead,these cars are called “certified pre-owned automobiles” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Add Some Air to Your Ad

How do companies use language to inflateclaims about the value of their products?  Sometimes products contain disclaimers, warning consumers about the dangers of using them improperly.  More and more, however, companies are writing “claimers,” using inflated language and hyperbole to tout the amazing ways in which their product will transform the life of the purchaser.  Have some fun with doublespeak by writing an advertisement for a product using exaggerated, inflated language to make the product seem too good to be true. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Means, Howard. What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate. Orlando Sentinel 2Mar. 1986.

2-Lutz, William.  Doublespeak.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1989.

December 11: Predicate Adjective Day

On this day in 1987, the film Wall Street opened in theaters. The film follows an ambitious young Wall Street broker named Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, and a rich corporate raider named Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, who won the Oscar for best actor in the role.  

In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, Gordon addresses a stockholders’ meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over.  In the speech, Gordon attempts to change the audience’s perception of him from corporate raider to company savior by targeting the wastefulness of the company’s management.  The core of his message is that“greed is good,” and that he is a liberator rather than a destroyer of companies (1).

The essence of Gordon’s claim in his speech is the sentence, “Greed is good.”  Syntactically speaking, this sentence is a classic example of a predicate adjective, a type of sentence in which a subject is linked with an adjective.  With predicate adjectives, a linking verb acts as a kind of equal sign to connect the subject and the adjective, as in Greed = good. Most of the time linking verbs are forms of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were, will be); however, there are other verbs that also serve to link the subject and the adjective, such as the verbs appear, become, feel, look, sound, and taste.

Here are some other examples of predicate adjectives:

Life is not fair.

Love is blind.

The students were angry.

The students look confused.

Infanticide is rampant among prairie dogs.

Today’s Challenge: Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, Predicate Adjectives Are Nothing New

One caveat for using predicate adjectives is to watch out for making unsupported subjective claims.  For example, notice that in addition to stating his claim that “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko also varies his syntax and supplies additional evidence and explanation to support his claim.  Sometimes writers or speakers think that stating something with authority, such as “This is boring,” makes it true.  On the contrary, the validity of any stated claim rests on its backing, its support, and its explanation.

What is a claim that you could state in the form of a predicate adjective, and how would you support it?

Use the list of subjective adjectives below to construct a claim about a topic you feel strongly about:

good, bad, boring, exciting, beautiful, ugly, awesome, awful, nice

Make sure that your claim is a predicate adjective and that it is an opinion, not a fact.  For example, if you say,“The house is red,” you would be stating a fact.  In contrast, if you say, “The house is ugly,” that’s an opinion.  Follow up your claim with specific details that support your claim.  Make sure to vary your syntax and go beyond just linking verbs that state what “is.” (Common Core Writing 1 -Argument)  

1-American Rhetoric. Movie Speech Wall Street (1987).

December 10: Declarative Sentence Day

On this day in 1954, Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Because of illness, Hemingway was unable to attend the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, Sweden, to receive his award in person.  He did, however, prepare a brief speech which was read by John C. Cabot, United States Ambassador to Sweden.

In addition to expressing his appreciation to the Nobel administrators, Hemingway’s speech provided some insights on the writer’s life:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if theyimprove his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness andoften his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a goodenough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. (1).

Characteristic of Hemingway’s writing, all four sentences in the paragraph above are declarative, that is they are sentences in which the subject precedes the verb, and they are sentences that make direct statements.  Unlike interrogative sentences, they donot ask questions (Why is writing a lonely life?).  Unlike imperative sentences, they do not make commands (Write every day no matter what.) And unlike exclamatory sentences, they do not express strongemotion (Writing is hard work!).

Today’s Challenge:  The Title is Also Declarative

What is a declarative sentence that would serve as a good title for a personal anecdote?  As Hemingway did with his novel The Sun Also Rises, try coming up with a good title in the form of one complete declarative sentence.  Then write an anecdote, either fact or fiction, that matches the title. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-The Nobel Prizes in Literature. Ernest Hemingway – Banquet Speech. Nobel 

December 9: Narrative Poem Day

On this day in 1854, Britain’s Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson published his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  The poem recounts a horrific episode at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.  On October 25, 1854, the British Light Brigade rode into battle against Russian forces. Following an ambiguous order to attack, the soldiers of the British cavalry were mowed down by Russian field artillery as they charged across a treeless valley.  Of the 673 British horsemen who made the charge that day only 198 survived (See October 25:  History Into Verse Day)(1).

Tennyson is said to have written his famous narrative poem in just a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in the newspaper.  The six-stanza poem immediately became popular, and even today its famous lines capture the plight of common soldiers, nobly and courageously following the orders of their superior:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

Narrative poetry is probably the oldest form of poetry there is. A narrative poem is a poem with a plot, a plot which centers around characters, conflict, and setting.  

The most common forms of narrative poems are the short form known as a ballad and a long form known as an epic. Accordingto Edward Hirsch in his book A Poet’s Glossary, these poems are some ofour oldest forms of storytelling. Many ballads and epics began as spoken formsof poetry, long before we had an alphabet that allowed people to write theirwords (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Muse Meets the News

What event from today’s news is worthy of immortalizing in verse? read Tennyson’s poem carefully, noticing how he tells the story of The Charge of the Light Brigade (3).  Then, like Tennyson, read a story in today’s newspaper, and write a short narrative poem that captures the key elements of the story. (Common Core 3 – Narrative)

1- March, W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  366: A Leap Year of Great Stories. Cambridge, UK:  Icon Books, 2007: 342.

2-Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014: 397.

3-Tennyson, Alfred Lord. The Charge of the Light Brigade. 1854 Public Domain. Poetry

December 8: Sesquipedalian Day

Today is the birthday in 65 BC of Roman lyrical poet and satirist Horace. On this day we express our gratitude to Horace for a single word — sesquipedalian, which means “a long word” or“a person known for using long words.”

Horace penned his verse in Latin.  In his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), he wrote the following: Proicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba, which translates, “He throws aside his paint pots and his words that are a foot and a half long.” Combining the Latin roots sesqu(one and a half) and ped (a foot), this adjective provides the perfect slightly exaggerated image for words that are wide.  Like many English words derived from Latin, especially many of thelonger ones, sesquipedalian was borrowed in the seventeenth century (1).

George Orwell gave good advice to writers in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” when he said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.”  However, sometimes a long word is the best word, especially when it has precise meaning.  Polysyllabic words may be long, but they also can pack a lot of meaning into a small space. In his book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Gary Provost calls these polysyllabic words “dense words” (2).  Dense words allow a writer to say in one word what would normally require many words.  For example, notice how in the sentence below, ten words can be swapped out for a single word:

Original:  The politician was guilty of being evasive, using many words when fewer were called for.

Revision:  The politician was guilty of circumlocution.

Today’s Challenge:  World of Wide and Weighty Words

What are some examples of words that are at least 10 letters long, words that pack a lot meaning into a single word?  Using a good dictionary, identify atleast 8 words that are each at least 10 letters long.  Record your list ofwords along with a definition of each one.  Also record the number ofwords in the definition.  Then, write your verdict of whether or not eachword is a dense word.  To judge each word, ask and answer the followingquestions:  Does the word crowd enough meaning into a small enoughspace to be declared dense?  Is it truly a heavyweight word?

Below are some examples of dense words:

Anthropomorphic, Bacchanalian, Circumlocution, Doctrinaire, Extemporaneous, Hemidemisemiquaver, Infrastructure, Jurisprudence(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-World Wide Words. Sesquipedalian.

2-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. New York:  New American Library, 1985.

December 7: Colorless Green Ideas Day

Today is the birthday of linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who was born in Philadelphia in 1928.  Chomsky spent more than 50 years as a professor at MIT and has authored over 100 books. Chomsky has been called “the father of modern linguistics” and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.  Despite all of the his accomplishments, Chomsky is perhaps best known for a single sentence:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Published in his 1957 book Semantic Structures, Chomsky’s famous sentence illustrates the difference between two essential elements of language:  syntax and semantics.  Syntaxrelates to the grammar of a language or the order in which words are combined. Semantics, in contrast, relates to the meaning of individual words. Chomsky’s sentence illustrates the difference between syntax andsemantics, showing that a grammatically or syntactically correct sentence canbe constructed that is semantically nonsensical.

Today’s Challenge:  Strange Semantic-less Syntax Sings Soporifically

What are some adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet? Try your hand at constructing asyntactically correct, yet semantically nonsensical sentence.  For anadded layer of interest, use alliteration by selecting words that begin withthe same letter.

Begin by brainstorming as many adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs as you can.  Then, select randomly from your list, filling in words in the following order:

Adjective + adjective + noun + verb + adverb

For example:

Raging red rainbows read raucously.


Soggy superfluous sunflowers swim softly.

Generate a number of sentences until you create one that’s so outrageous that it belongs on a T-shirt. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)