Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: Glendale HomeCollections

A Word, Please: Putting it in puffy terms

June 30, 2010|By June Casagrande

I recently stumbled across an old YouTube video in which the late writer David Foster Wallace was asked about what he calls "puff words" — terms like "prior to" and "subsequent to."

Wallace's answer was striking. He didn't qualify it with "Well, there's some debate, but …" or "Depending on the context …" or "Though we should be careful not to label the practice as 'wrong' …"

No, Wallace didn't mince words. Using "utilize" instead of "use," he said, "in 99 cases out of 100 is just stupid." More syllables, Wallace said, add up to nothing but puffery: "Why say 'prior to' instead of 'before,'" he asked, "when the latter lets you say the same thing in fewer words? … Why did you just take up one-third of a second of my lifetime making me parse 'at this time' rather than just saying 'now'?"

Advertisement

Of course, that's just Wallace's opinion. But it's also mine. Perhaps there's some scholar out there who disagrees and has published extensive research showing the benefits of inefficient, puffed-up words and expressions. But no one could read it anyway. So the keep-it-short-and-sweet contingent has the floor.

The thing that bothers me most about "puff" words and terms like "utilize," "terminate," "presently," "previous to" and "entered into an agreement to" is that they make the writer sound uncertain of his own message. Someone who's really confident in what he has to say won't hesitate to use "use," "end," "now," "before" and "agree to." Only people who are hesitant to come right out and say something resort to abstract, less committal terms. They feel their information lacks authority, so they rely on stuffy, formal-sounding language to give it false authority.

To the reader, these puff words come out as white noise: "Prior to utilizing the proper instrument for the act of brushing, the dental patient should utilize floss." That whole brain-numbing mess really means "Floss before you brush." Yet many readers would miss this message entirely, perhaps because they fell asleep before the end of the sentence.

Glendale News-Press Articles Glendale News-Press Articles
|
|
|