21 April 2008

"Obtain a shot of rhythm & blues," he demanded.

Classrooms used to have posters with lists of "Better Words to Use Instead of GET" and "More Interesting Words to Use Instead of SAID". Scholars were urged to avoid these simple, useful Anglo-Saxon words in favour of such formalities as received or obtained, remarked or observed.

Never mind that get or said were easily found throughout the works of professional, even great, writers. Shakespeare ended Sonnet VII with So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon/Unlook'd on diest, unless thou get a son: would they have preferred acquired a son?

In song, The Beatles might have written Proceed Back instead of Get Back, and Must Manoeuvre You Into My Life instead of Got To Get You Into My Life. Dave Edmunds' album would have been 'Procure It', not 'Get It', and Arthur Alexander would have thrown out the get and sung obtain a shot of rhythm & blues.

As for said:
Beatles: She Remarked.
Wings: Listen To What The Man Stated.
Van Morrison: Jackie Wilson Observed.
Neil Diamond: I Am... I Asserted.
Bernard Cribbins: Right Exclaimed Fred.

I'm being facetious, but in many contexts get and said are perfectly respectable. Substituting longer words can sound self-conscious, over-formal, or lacking in directness. It makes sense if the substitute offers an extra shade of meaning (bought for got), or if the context forces you to keep it formal, but often it adds nothing, especially in fiction: "Oh, look! The mother bird is leaving the nest," observed Mary.

As long ago as 1908, H.G. Fowler was offering this advice in The King's English:

ANY one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:—
Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

1 comment:

J. said...

You possess a point.

Of course, these lessons will prepare the students well if they go on to careers in middle management or government. In government, I once had a supervisor cross out the word 'let' on a draft I had written, and replace it with 'permission'. 'Permission' as a verb.

Funny how 'Listen To What The Man Said' sounds like a Wings song, but 'Listen To What The Man Stated' sounds like a Talking Heads song!