The effect of this disease, now endemic on both sides of the Atlantic, is to make the patient write such sentences as, Participation by the men in the control of the industry is non-existent, instead of, The men have no part in the control of the industry; Early expectation of a vacancy is indicated by the firm, instead of, The firm say they expect to have a vacancy soon; The availability of this material is diminishing, instead of, This material is getting scarcer; A cessation of dredging has taken place, instead of, Dredging has stopped; Was this the realization of an anticipated liability? instead of, Did you expect you would have to do this? And so on, with an abstract word always in command as the subject of the sentence. Persons and what they do, things and what is done to them, are put in the background, and we can only peer at them through a glass darkly. It may no doubt be said that in these examples the meaning is clear enough; but the danger is that, once the disease gets a hold, it sets up a chain reaction. A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself, and writing such sentences as The actualisation of the motivation of the forces must to a great extent be a matter of personal angularity.
H.W. Fowler (1858-1933)
When I read the above quote I thought of George Orwell. He wrote about what he saw happening to the English language in his day:
By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.
He gives an example using the Book of Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
One thought on “Wednesday with Words: Abstractitis”
WOW! I am guilty of this. I know it but I will try harder to think clearly.