Tuxedo Verbs

Use rich verbs, but don’t put them in tuxedos.

Constance Hale, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #346

Watch for Redundancy

But if the bright side of a rich vocabulary is variety, the dark side is redundancy. Of course, the habit of repetition is deeply encoded in language (remember the “and God said” of Genesis?), and it can make words magical (abracadabra). Reiteration can ensure that the words are understood in a noisy courtroom (null and void) and that ideas pop on a book spine (The Sound and the Fury, The Best and the Brightest, The Power and the Glory).

But, all too often, repetition is mindless—or, worse, clichéd. It is just run-of-the-mill redundancy, deflating rhetorical power and fuzzing up meaning.

Think of how many adverbs merely repeat what a verb expresses: circle around, expedite quickly, merge together, repeat again, return back, first conceive, plan ahead, completely destroy. Those two-word phrases could all convey the same idea with one word. Then there’s shuttle back and forth. C’mon: “back and forth” is part of the definition of shuttle, so to write shuttle back and forth only shuttles our readers within a sentence.

Often, we deploy verb pairs reflexively, not intentionally. Shelve one part of dig and delve. Think twice about think and reflect. When it comes to this habit, cease or desist—but, please, don’t cease and desist!

Certain redundancies are especially common business writing, like the nouns effectiveness and efficiency or the verbs engaged and excited. The following sentence appeared in the manuscript of a business book: “Consider how keeping a daily checklist might keep you engaged and excited about your job.” But when you are engaged, aren’t you usually excited?

One of the biggest downsides of a too-rich-vocabulary is words that are uncommon and unwieldy. The worst are also abstract and pompous. Some have been cobbled from Latin and Greek by writers who wanted to seem erudite. (A few centuries ago, these were dubbed “inkhorn terms,” in honor of the horn pot holding ink for quills used by pedantic writers too fond of the classics.)

Beware Tuxedo Verbs

I prefer to call them “tuxedo verbs.” Take perfectly good verbs like give, start, join, grill, and pay, dress them up in uncomfortable duds, and you get the synonyms bequeath, commence, conjoin, interrogate, and remunerate.

Other tuxedo verbs rely on the Greek suffix –ize. Some of these cropped up long ago— baptize, for example, was used as early as the 13th  century. Modern science loves this suffix and sticks it on nouns to create verbs such as oxidize, polymerize, and galvanize.* When an -ize verb expresses something we have no better synonym for—capsize, Mirandize, recognize, sterilize—it’s fine to use it. But avoid such verbs when a more succinct synonym exists—finish is better than finalize, and moisten is better than moisturize, no matter what Oil of Olay promises.

Next: Learn from Pompous Ass Words


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