Gene Weingarten: Gene writes the wrongs


(By Eric Shansby)
Gene Weingarten
Columnist February 7, 2013

Several months ago, I challenged the widespread assertion that the Internet has ushered in an age of bad writing. Writing is not getting any worse, I said, it is just becoming different, adhering to a new set of laws that I began to identify, codify and even celebrate. I have since continued my research and present my findings here.   

1. The Voyages of the Jargonauts. Before the Internet, obfuscatory language was mostly limited to the small world of the interoffice memo, where everyone conspired to be as vague and process-driven as possible — promising nothing concrete while sounding businesslike. Today, however, terms such as “optimize,” “prioritize,” “initiative,” “parameter,” “implement” and “effectuate” have become common parlance on the Web, used unabashedly in endlessly intriguing combinations. There are hundreds of instances of “prioritize the implementation of,” “implement the prioritization of,” “effectuate the implementation of,” etc. The expression “implementation of prioritized initiatives” alone appears on the Internet 2,100 times, more often than some of Pablo Neruda’s lesser-known love poems. 

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

This brave new world, however, is not without its own poet laureates, such as Joseph Bitran, a New Jersey businessman who informs us online that he helps his clients “assess, optimize, prioritize and implement strategic initiatives.” He goes on to say his experience also spans “conceptual design of enterprise models, as well as strategic projects and initiatives for both profit and non-profit enterprises, including the assessment, optimization and prioritization of governmental job creation and enterprise development initiatives and policy options.” After a half-hour on his Web site, I became reasonably certain that Mr. Bitran’s work has something to do with computers.

2. Dawn of a New Error. Skeptics have long bemoaned that language evolves in part through the acceptance of ignorant misuse. This is true — most dictionaries now accept “infer” to mean “imply” — but it is nothing to be ashamed of! Language is a living, breathing organism vulnerable to infection and mutation; the Internet has merely accelerated this natural process! Therefore I am proud to report the near complete extinction of a correct phrase and its replacement by an erroneous version of itself. The self-evidently incorrect declaration of dismissal — “I could care less” — is now used twice as often as the correct “I couldn’t care less.” Good riddance, and good work, people!

In a related matter, we have an exciting new development! The illiterate but common formulation “less people” (as in “Less people know how to write”) is catching up to the snootily correct “fewer people” and may overtake it by 2015.  


(By Eric Shansby )

3. The Rise of the Sillyble, or extraneous syllable. In pre-Internet days we saw this with the pointless tacking on of “ir” to “regardless,” creating a brand-new word meaning, uh, “regardless.” The Web has accelerated this process. “Preventative” has just about overtaken “preventive,” to mean “preventive.” “Orientate” is moving up on “orient” to mean “orient.” There is work yet to be done, though: The Web reveals that “ironical” has just begun its assault on the summit of Mount Ironic. We wish it Godspeed.

4. The Ascendance of the Universal Superlative.  We have previously shown how the number of “reallys” placed before a simple adjective has added varying degrees of emphasis, effectively eliminating the need to come up with new, nuanced adjectives. This development, I said, was really, really, really, really good. It is perhaps ironical that I have now discovered that it is no longer even necessary to measure the relative goodness of things, so long as they pass a basic, subjectively unverifiable and fluid threshold of “best ever,” expressed through the concise formulation of: “Best. [Thing]. Ever.” There does not appear to be a minimum gravity to the nature of things so designated. The Web reveals that best-ever declaration has been made for a spork, lint, a yawn, a nipple, a toothbrush, nachos and a tumor. The last is my nomination for Best. Superlative. Ever.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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