Gene Weingarten: Prose and cons

Gene Weingarten
Columnist November 14, 2012

Skeptics contend that bad writing is on the rise. The argument is hard to deny, for the simple reason that in the age of the Internet, everyone’s a writer. It used to be that to get published, a writer needed a publisher, and publishers were picky about whom they spent money on. Now, everyone is self-published, and it turns out we are somewhat less demanding of ourselves than, say, Simon & Schuster would be.

The difference between the skeptics and me, though, is that I accept and celebrate this development. I refuse to define the new writing norm as bad. It is simply different. Rather than deride it, I have decided to analyze it, using the very instrument that created the New Norm: the Internet, with its vast powers to search and quantify. Here are just a few of the new laws of writing that I have discovered.

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

1. The Law of Conservation of Adjectives. In the old days, writers needed to burden themselves with an arsenal of modifiers — adjectives that deliver subtly different connotation and emphasis. No more. Today, one only needs the adverb “really,” and the degree of emphasis is indicated by how many times it is used. “Really, really happy” would formerly have been “elated.” “Really, really, really, really happy” would formerly have been “orgasmic.” The “really” phenomenon is so strong that its limits cannot be plumbed even by the mighty Google search engine, which restricts inquiries to no more than 32 words. I can, however, report that people have used at least 32 reallys very often. How often? Really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really often. Thirty-two reallys, in quotes, returns more than 3 million hits. Here, some of the words following 32 or more reallys: “like girls,” “hot guy,” “old,” “cool” and “want this” (it’s a shirt). A quick anecdotal sampling suggests the most common word following 32 reallys is “bored.”

2. The Law of the Ascendancy of Cliche. In the old days, writers avoided cliches like the plague (joke). Instead, writers would waste enormous amounts of time trying to say things in new and different ways. And why? To assault readers with complicated new thoughts and phrases that they must puzzle out. No more. Today, the cliche has been embraced like an old friend. I tried to string together cliches in such a way that no one has ever used them all in one place. It was impossible. Every search got at least one hit. Five different documents, for example, contained all of the following: “breathed a sigh of relief,” “emotional roller coaster,” “woefully inadequate” and “reached out to.” When I added to this search a “major step in the right direction,” two documents still remained.

3. The Third Law of Chaos. There was a time when writers took unattractively egotistical pride in their ability to formulate words by arranging letters in a way that happened to agree with the tyrannical dictates of the dictionary. Now, thankfully, spelling is less hidebound. It is nearly impossible, for example, to find a spelling of “definitely” that has not been successfully, triumphantly published. As to be expected, we find 62 million “definatelys.” But we also find multiple definitallys, defanatlys, definatallys, definitlys, defonatelys, definutelys, deffinatelys, defeanitelys, difintetlys, definallys and defanallys. “Deffanatly” alone has almost 200,000 hits.


(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

3a. The Banishment of Shame. Corollary to the Third Law of Chaos.

I have found thousands of the following iterations: ignerence, iggnorance, ignerance, ignerrence, iliteracy, illitteracy, illitericy, mispell, misspel, intellagance, inteligence, inteligance, intellagence and brianpower.

My work here is just beginning. I hope to share more of the new laws of writing. I am really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really excited about this project.

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

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