There are no bad words

I’m pretty straight-laced, so people who know me may be surprised by that title. I mean it, but let me clarify. There are crude words. There are hurtful, insulting words. There are words meant to shock that are usually a crutch or stumbling block to saying something meaningful. There are boring words. There are dangerous words. There are certainly words that I don’t felt the need to use in my writing or my everyday conversation.

But I don’t like to think of them as “bad words.” Like all words, they have a meaning and a function in communication.

To illustrate, I’ll use a four-letter word I find particularly insidious: “hate.” My kids are allowed to hate Brussels sprouts and homework and early bed times. I discourage them from saying they hate other people. Why? Hate is a dangerous word, and I want them to think carefully about how they use it.

Now, let’s look at these words: Fun. Good. Bad. Said. I. He. She. It. Stuff. Things. A lot. Pretty. Walk. Big.

Some teachers are trying to ban these and other common words entirely from their students’ writing vocabulary, a trend covered in this article from the Wall Street Journal.

I’ve long been aware of the campaign of some English teachers to encourage their students to use adverbs to liven up dialogue tags: “He said happily,” instead of just “He said.” Now, adverbs are NOT bad words. They have their place. For instance, “I expect to die at any moment now,” he said cheerfully. There might be a way to write around that “cheerfully,” but it does its job: it shows that the statement is being said in a way the reader might not expect. It changes the meaning and gives more understanding. But then there’s, “I’m having a great day,” she said happily. We don’t need happily, because we’ll read it that way anyway, and extra words just bog down a story.

These teachers are doing a disservice by encouraging the thoughtless use of words. Now we have the other extreme, with teachers advocating the thoughtless dismissal of perfectly functional words.

I love words, and I love supporting young writers, so this makes me angry. These teachers are crippling their students’ abilities to express themselves by laying down arbitrary rules. Encourage your students to expand their vocabulary and seek out more interesting ways to say something? Great! Ban serviceable words from their lexicon? Boo!

Let’s look at “said” as an example. “Said” is almost invisible in writing. And guess what? That’s a GOOD thing. Readers love dialogue, and when we’re deep in the middle of it, we don’t want to be distracted by bleated, honked, chattered, cried, shouted, chirped, barked, etc. Those words are attention hogs. They’re not serving their story; they’re distracting from it by saying, “Look at  me!” Occasionally, we want that. But not in every line of dialogue. Heaven help anyone who has to read a book written that way.

Okay, then what about “pretty?” “She was pretty” is a bland statement–say it to ten different people and you’ll have ten different images of what “she” looks like. It would be better to say, “Her glossy black hair fell down her back in long ringlets, and her brown eyes shone with laughter.” Now maybe we’re more or less on the same page. But “pretty” need not be tossed in the garbage. How about, “She was a pretty enough girl, in a shy, retiring way.” In that example, “pretty” adds to the sentence’s voice, and its vagueness supports the narrator’s description of the girl. It’s not a “bad” word, it’s just a frequently misused one.

Writers have a tendency to get bogged down in rules. “Adverbs are bad.” “‘Was’ is bad.” “Show don’t tell.” There’s a reason behind each of these rules–and it’s important to understand that reason–but they are not unbendable, unbreakable guidelines to good writing. Writing may be one of the hardest of the arts because it’s deeply subjective and difficult to teach and to learn–there are things writers can learn about structure, voice, or dialogue, but there’s no formula that makes writing work. What is spell-binding in one author’s hands may be clunky and unreadable in another’s. Still, that search to pin it down means writers get hung up on rules, afraid to tell their story in a natural way.

So, instead of teaching young writers that some words are “bad,” teach them how to actually think about words–what they mean, what they imply, and the work they do in a piece of writing. Encourage them to stretch themselves, but to always keep an eye on the ultimate goal: to communicate clearly and effectively.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style isn’t perfect by any means, but I think its underlying premise holds true: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

Make every word matter.

If not, we may end up with the kind of writing George Orwell warned us against in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” when he said language should be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

And here are his simple rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Though my writing is far from perfect, I owe a great debt to my high school English teachers: Mrs. Hampton, Mr. Arnt, and Mr. Bennett. Thank you for teaching me to love and think about words instead of boxing them, and my writing, into arbitrary rules.