Little things mean a lot. Little things can make a big difference. For example, this troublesome little word: “the.”
“Army officials issued dishonorable discharges to the soldiers who had PTSD and were accused of crimes.” As opposed to: “Army officials issued dishonorable discharges to soldiers who had PTSD and were accused of crimes.”
If you mean specific, individual soldiers, then “the” belongs in the sentence. If you mean soldiers in general in that category, “the” does not belong in the sentence. That word — “the” — distinguishes between specific and general.
Another troublesome little thing: which word to use — that or who? Example: “The School Board honored parents that taught their children at home during the quarantine.”
The word “that” changes parents from humans into machines. Use “who” when you refer to people; use “that” when you refer to things. To be fair, those little words are not trifles: Used correctly, they provide precision, which creates clarity.
So much for “little.” Now, “big.” My most recent column quoted the editor of a trade magazine who abhors big, trendy words like “utilize.” She opts for “use.” An old friend who read that column sent me a tattered, yellowed page from a long-defunct periodical called The Educator Monthly. The page, from her great-uncle’s files, contains an essay by Lorne A. Anderson, titled “Don’t Use Big Words.”
An excerpt: “Let your conversational communications possess a clarified conciseness, a compact comprehensiveness, coalescent consistency and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement and asinine affectation.”
Flatulent describes inflated, pretentious writing; garrulity describes excessive talkativeness. In the spirit of the excerpt, you might term the combination repetitive redundancy. Author Anderson concludes: “In other words, talk plainly, briefly, naturally, sensibly. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and Don’t Use Big Words.”
In other words, write the way you talk. That essay was published 145 years ago. They knew; even then, they knew. As for flatulent garrulity, the sooner you run out of gas, the better.
Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson can be reached at www.writebetterwithgary.com.