Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Tireless": A single word cliche

Illustration by Stephen Doyle

Can an individual word be a cliche? Geoff Dyer in the NY Times ("Next time try unflagging," Feb. 19, 2012) makes a good case that "tireless" qualifies:

Were it not for the way my eye had started to snag on this word, I would not have paid it any attention---and that, in a way, is part of my point: “tireless” and “tirelessly” are words writers seem to use without paying them much attention. “Tireless” is a tired word that has somehow kept its place in the lexicon where others---less resilient but just as obviously over the hill or out of puff---would long ago have retired and bowed out gracefully.

My eye snags on other one-word cliches: "globe" as a substitute for "world"; "decade" as a substitute for an always-serviceable "ten years"; and, if you read a lot about traffic, your eye will often stumble over "signage," which is no improvement over "signs."

Orwell is a good guide to avoiding cliches in your writing: "In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them."

Remember: don't surrender to "upon"; use "on" instead.

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7 Comments:

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

As if on cue, the hard copy of this morning's Chronicle delivers the inelegant variation of "globe" on the front page of its hard copy ("Composer-producer travels globe to discover out-of-this-world music")and John King, not for the first time, gives us "signage." ("Board President David Chiu will introduce legislation as early as Tuesday to require improved signage...")

King doesn't just write about architecture, mind you, he's the Chronicle's "Urban Design Critic."

 
At 10:58 PM, Blogger Nato said...

"Signage" is potentially more specific than "signs," as the former refers specifically to the physical paraphernalia of signs where the latter refers most correctly to a functional category. Having said that, the reason I dislike using them as synonyms is that it elides the distinction and ultimately removes the language's ability to be specific.

 
At 11:01 PM, Blogger Nato said...

Thus if Chiu was asking for signs to be made from reflective materials, or be more resistant to rust, the word "signage" would be the most correct. If instead signs are changed from the word "WALK" in English to the more universally understandable walking man figure, that would be a change of sign more than signage.

 
At 10:49 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Those seem like distinctions without a difference to me. A sign is a sign is a sign.

 
At 4:27 PM, Blogger Nato said...

An example: one couldn't replace 'sign' with 'signage' in statements of the form "x is a sign that y is z." This is because 'signage' refers to a set of physical things designed to signal in a somewhat specific way, as in labels or placards providing directions, but not in terms of omens, mathematics, and so on. The word 'sign' can refer to all of those things and is much more general. Of course, one could use the term metaphorically, saying that something is "signage of the times" to evoke the image of a literal billboard declaring something about the current era, but point is that the word 'signage' is not a synonym for 'sign' any more than 'photon' is a synonym for 'light.'

I also looked up the Chronicle's article, and found that they probably using the term correctly in that article, because Chiu did seem to be specifically referring to the physical form of the signs. I appreciate the extra precision afforded by using the narrower term.

 
At 5:18 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I still don't see that "signage" is any improvement over "signs."

 
At 7:25 PM, Blogger Nato said...

Well, perhaps you see no advantage in using the word, but I think it would be difficult to criticize it as cliche or inelegant. It is the most precise word to describe the subject with which the article deals.

 

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