These Sentences Contain No Harmful Fillers

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plate with forkWritten by a professor to professors, this article, “Diss ‘Like’” (Ted Gup, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/8/12), eloquently explains why usage of the verbal filler “like,” and perhaps worse, our general acceptance of it, significantly harm all of us.

The fine piece certainly is worth reading in its entirety. Notable excerpt:

“[Like] is a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, relieving the speaker of accountability. It tells students that the world is so intrigued by what they have to say that it is willing to clean up after them, to sift through the verbal refuse for the nuggets concealed within.”

As an English teacher myself, I’ve noticed a common retort to such arguments: “who cares?” But to dismiss this criticism of flabby, inexpressive language with a shrug is, it seems to me, to be complicit in the erosion, or “corruption” as Gup says, of language as a whole.

One could argue the erosion has been happening for awhile now. The extraneous “like” has been a problem since at least the early ‘90’s, when my own high school English teacher interrupted an offensive “It’s, like, really hot outside” with “Is it LIKE hot, or is it INDEED hot?” Prof. Gup in his article explains that he notified his students of their uttered “likes” by holding aloft a “LIKE” sign at each offense. Both methods call attention to use of verbal fillers on the spot, and emphasize slowing down and thinking about what we’re saying: that is, speaking with deliberation. Don’t expect the listener to “clean up after you,” as the quote above has it. This idea, of course, also applies to written expression; as Strunk and White’s venerable Elements of Style says about writing a paragraph,

“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.”

So this year, consider working toward making your communications more concise and eliminating bad habits from your speech. A well-spoken college graduate more easily commands attention and, perhaps, credibility and respect; and speaking with grace and purpose is a significant personal accomplishment as well as a valuable, versatile life skill.

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3 Must-Reads for College Prep Writing

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Image by jaubele1 via Flickr

What’s the best advice I can give to those who’d like to improve their writing skills? Read. Read voraciously. Read material that challenges you. See here and here for more specifics.

For that frequently asked question, particularly by those who have been out of school for awhile, “Do you recommend a good book for general brushing up on my writing skills?”, oh, yes — but make that a handful of books:

1)       Strunk, William Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

A classic now in its fourth edition, this is a slim, concise volume that will help you with any form of college (or professional) writing.  It offers rock-solid advice and is destined to become a frequent reference, but it’s also charmingly written and definitely readable in a day.

2)      Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham, 2004.   

A best-selling, entertaining book that outlines the history and proper usage of punctuation marks in the English language.  If you fear your own punctuation skills may be deteriorating with every text message you send, this book is for you.

3)      A writer’s handbook of your choice.

Two very good ones to which my own English Comp students have responded positively:

Hacker, Diana and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.

Raimes, Ann. Pocket Keys for Writers. 3rd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.

*I’ve listed the most recent editions here…certainly, older editions are still floating around and most of the basic information will be the same.

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