Banish Boring Words? Sometimes a Kiss Is Not a Buss

By Mike Feinsilber

Banish+Boring+Words+Gr+4-8Jimmy Walker, the playboy mayor of New York City, once said, “No girl was ever ruined by a book,” but he must never have met Leilen Shelton. Ms. Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, California, has been seduced by a thesaurus.

In its bottom-of-page-one, tongue-in-cheek, italicized-headline story (I call them “raised eyebrow stories”), the Wall Street Journal yesterday relates how Ms. Shelton leads a movement among grade-school teachers to discourage—and penalize—pupils who, in writing, use commonplace words which she considers dull or vague.

She is the scribe of a manual, “Banish Boring Words,” which the Journal says has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009. She doesn’t want her scholars to use such words as “good,” “bad,” “fun” and “said.”

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” Ms. Shelton proclaimed.

To be clear, penman James R. Hagerty, the bard behind the Journal narrative, isn’t buying into Ms. Shelton’s postulation. He inscribes: “The goal is livelier writing. The result can be confusion.”

The Journal commentates that Ms. Shelton isn’t solitary. Other teachers replicate her campaign. The Powell River Board of Education in British Columbia (You too, Canada?) has offered students 397 alternatives to “said.” (“Emitted,” “beseeched” “sniveled,” “spewed.”)

I understand Ms. Shelton’s motive: she wants her pupils to be precise, to select the exactly right word, to be sensitive to the differences between words of similar meanings.

But Ms. Shelton, you’ve got it all wrong. Banning some words as “boring” is a perverted way to achieve your goals. “Bad” is not always nefarious. “Fun” can be better than “merriment.”

Words that preen, words that call attention to themselves, words that divert the reader from what the writer is saying are doing just the opposite of what words are intended to do.

For anyone, but especially for a writer of facts, no word is more useful than “said.” It is neutral. It carries no baggage. The reader doesn’t notice it and doesn’t notice when it is used a hundred times.

“Said” says what was said. Any synonym conveys a message. “Uttered,” “voiced,” “emitted,” “pronounced,” “indicated,” “alleged,” “contended,” “imparted,” “declared,” “stated,” “announced”—all the synonyms in the book—say it, but with nuance. “Said” says it straight. Those synonyms have their place. For sheer utility, none replaces “said.”

So cut it out, Ms. Shelton. How many kids do you teach? Thirty a year? You’re ruining 1,000 kids in the course of your career. Some of them might have become writers.

Ms. Shelton, get an existence…
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach.

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