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Opinion | Anne Bernays

The word cops have a warrant for your arrest

Globe Staff

So is it OK to use the word “hopefully,” as in “Hopefully, tomorrow will be a better day”? Regrettably, yes, it is. And that’s because the English language, like any other cultural trope, is fluid and changes with the swells and dips of time. Only “dead” languages, like Latin and ancient Greek, are immutable. The grammatical way to use the H word is in a sentence like this: “She went in to the exam hopefully, knowing that she had to get a passing grade.” Usage changes and we ought to go along it. “Lie” and “lay” have become interchangeable. Sentences with the “had” construction have largely disappeared, as in “If he had answered his phone, he would have been overjoyed.” Today, most people would say “If he answered his phone he would have been overjoyed.” It just sounds wrong, but language changes and we need to float with it.

By weight, saffron is the most expensive item. Diamonds are next. But to the finicky writer, words are priceless and must never be wasted.


We misuse and abuse language through ignorance, imprecision, impatience, and, worst of all, camouflage. For instance, consider the two-word phrase “going forward.” “I promise to be more fiscally responsible going forward.” Think a moment. Where else would next time exist?

The words “house” and “home” are not synonymous. A house is a hollow structure. It has doors, windows, a roof, and maybe some termites in the basement. “Home” is an abstraction, a constellation of feelings. But your home could be in an apartment house or a boat or even a cave. That’s why you don’t see pillows embroidered with the words “House Sweet House.” A house becomes a home only when it’s occupied by the people who live in it. To say “home for sale” — as many glossy brochures do — is merely wishful thinking.


When there’s a death, someone has died. They haven’t “passed on” or worse, “passed.” Those words serve only to disguise or soften an unpleasant truth. Today’s “senior citizens” are yesterday’s old men and old women. The “transfer station” is what we used to call the “garbage dump.” Your family doctor is now your primary care physician. Why do we insist that so many words and phrases wear camouflage? My language guru, George Orwell, would say moral cowardice.

“Issue” has largely replaced “problem.” A problem is something that needs solving: “The problem of economic inequality seems to be permanent.” An issue, was, until recently, an unresolved dispute between two or more people. Nowadays they are used interchangeably, as in “Tom has health issues.” No. “Tom realizes his fainting spells are a problem.”

Why is this seemingly minor matter of using the right words, of meaning what you say and saying what you mean, so important? Because as Orwell pointed out: “If thought corrupts language, language corrupts thought.” Why did Hitler order the destruction of so many books? Because he understood the extraordinary power of the word. He realized that in a struggle between sword and pen, the pen will ultimately own the sword.

Orwell also weighed in on word length. I realize some writers prefer to work with what’s known as purple prose and many readers respond to this with impatient appetite. Unless the palette is in the hands of a master like Vladimir Nabokov or Henry James, this orgy of adjectives, adverbs, and inside out sentences leaves me yearning for the simplicity of Ernest Hemingway (whose guru was a woman) and Graham Greene. A matter of taste, I suppose.


Orwell’s advice was never to use a three-syllable word when two would do or a two-syllable word when one would do. But recently we seem to have an urge to add on to an existing word syllables it doesn’t need — like a bushy tail. Thus “many” is rendered as “multiple”; “photo” as “photo-op”; a “man” or a “woman” is an “individual” — that’s five syllables where one or two would do.

As a writing teacher one of my jobs is to preach the gospel of clarity and precision. It’s astonishing how often someone will write one word when they mean something entirely different. In a famous interview in The Paris Review, Hemingway was asked if it were true that he rewrote the last paragraph of “A Farewell to Arms” 27 times and if true, what was the problem? (Not, thank God, the “issue.” ) Hemingway answered, “I had to find the right words.”

Finding the right word is hard work. Those who think writing a strong sentence is easy should try turning out an entire story that anyone other than your mother can read straight through. And the English language, I’m glad to say, is alive, well, and malleable in spite of its lapses and messy accidents. Where but in the English-speaking world would anyone come up with something as brilliant as two negatives combined to form the positive adjective badass?


Anne Bernays is a novelist, essayist, and teacher.