Saturday, July 07, 2007

Taboo # 3: You may not repeat words. Or may you?

Okay, this taboo is perhaps the most dangerous taboo of all.

You see, one of the oddities about the English language is that it has very few exact synonyms. You really can't pluck out a word and plug in another one and mean the same thing.

But along the way, "You May Not Repeat Words" became a RULE OF GRAMMAR and that's what was drilled into our heads. (Don't miss the bottom of this post for the end of the story on rules of grammar.)

I was taught English Composition by nuns (and I've got the scars on my knuckles to prove it!). One day, my seventh-grade teacher, Sister Mary Christopher, assigned us a short story themed around a farm.

Being the budding little writer I was, I decided to use an emotional lightning rod and tell my story through the eyes of Bessie, the cow on the farm, and share a day in her life. I wrote my little heart out and turned it in.

Nuns are incredibly fast graders, living in a convent and all, so I got the story back the next day. With great anticipation, I awaited my paper, and when Sister Mary Christopher handed it back to me, my heart sunk. "C" was emblazoned across the front of my paper.

Opening it up, I quickly saw lots of red marks. Most of what I saw was down the left margin. She had written "You may not repeat words," "You may not repeat words." And she had circled every time I used the word "cow" to refer to Bessie.

Now, here's the thing about Catholic school. You don't just take your "C." You have to take your paper home and correct it and turn it in. You don't get a better grade, but the idea is you learn to correct your mistakes.

So, being the hopeful writer I was and wanting so badly to do it right, I sat down with my thesaurus (yes--I had a thesaurus in seventh grade. Go ahead and call me a geek.) and I came up with alternatives for "cow." After the first time I used it, I said things like, "cud-chewing farm animal," and "four-legged milk-producing mammal."

Wow. What a crazy thing to do with a language that has so few exact synonyms. By doing this, I was confusing my readers--giving them words that could have a different meaning from what I intended. I was giving them room to interpret what I was saying. After all, there is more than one four-legged milk producing mammal and more than one cud-chewing farm animal.

Talk about a clarity killer.

Thankfully, I learned better. I shed this bad habit after I got out of school and entered the real world. (Don't know if Sister Mary Christopher shed her bad habit. I'll have to look her up.)

The moral to this little story, and the reason to shed this taboo, is this: The best word to use is the one you mean. Even if you have to say it again.

The three taboos I've shared (beginning sentences with "and" or "but," ending sentences with a preposition, and not repeating words), need one final nail in the coffin. We learned these as RULES OF GRAMMAR. Here's the thing. They never were rules of grammar. Ever. What they were were syntax guidelines.

This means that the National Council of Teachers of English, decades ago, came up with what sounded like proper English usage. These guidelines got written into curriculum, and became interpreted as rules. Emancipate yourself from them. Set yourself free. And watch your writing precision soar.