The sin of pretentiousness

rogersgeorge on December 22nd, 2011

When you write to explain something, your writing should focus your reader’s attention on the content, not on the writing, and not on you. Business English has become contaminated with pretentiousisms (a new word, invented by me, and seen here for the first time!), words that are fancier than necessary, and sometimes incorrect. People insert them to sound more erudite.  Here are a few of my favorite pretentiousisms. Don’t use them.

Using French is either pretentious or funny.

Prior when you mean previous. “Prior” implies greater importance, such as being a prerequisite for what follows. “Previous” refers to something that came first. For example I should say “The previous comic strip was funny, but I cannot quote it without prior written permission.”

Which when you mean that. This is something that Microsoft’s grammar checker generally gets right, by the way. Use “which” when you make an aside, and prefix it with a comma. Use “that” when you’re adding necessary information about something. For example you should say “The lecture that the professor gave yesterday was about the concept of free will, which I know nothing about.” Here’s the rule of thumb: ask if “that” works in the sentence. if it does, don’t use “which.”

Those when you mean the. Bad: “Those people who drive fancy cars are being pretentious.” Better: “The people who drive fancy…” Best: “People who drive fancy…” You might say that you want to more strongly point out whom you are referring to. No need; you make the point just fine with “the” or nothing. (You should be careful of generalizations anyway.)

Get your plurals right. Don’t use artificial Latin endings. Perhaps the most common if these is the plural of process, in spoken English. Don’t say “processees” (processese?) The plural of “process” is plain old “processes,” accent on the first syllable. People Latinize plurals on other words that end in -is and -es, such as “premise.” Be careful, though. Some words do have a Latin plural, “analysis” for example.

Another plural that a lot of folks mess up is the plural of “incident.” It’s “incidents,” not “incidences.”

Be careful of instant and instance.  “Instant” a measure of time, “instance” is an example of something.  The plurals are “instants” and instances.” Don’t make the plural of “instant” into “instantses” just to add a syllable.

The word “different” is often unnecessary. Usually you can leave it out. “There are two different ways to get there from here” means the same thing as “There are two ways to get there from here.” Leave out “different.” This one is a pet peeve of a fellow curmudgeon, Jim Murray, whom I worked with at Gateway 2000 many years ago. Hi, Jim!

Using myself when you mean me. Use “myself” only when you have already referred to yourself in the sentence. (Note that this applies to “you” and “yourself,” too.) Here is an example of the wrong usage by someone who ought to know better, Michael Shirmer, the founding editor of Skeptic magazine, in his book, The Believing Brain:

Good point. But the problem for both Dawkins and myself is our chauvinism. As Carl Sagan used to say, we are carbon chauvinists.

Why didn’t he write “…the problem for both Dawkins and me…”? I haven’t asked him, but I’ll suspect that Dr. Shirmer felt that “me” was too casual. In other words, not high-falootin’ enough. The context (page 198, by the way) is a discussion of the likelihood of encounters with extraterrestrials, so here’s a picture. Both Dawkins and Shirmer say we don’t have any extraterrestrials on earth, and I’m inclined to agree with them.

Picture used without permission. If you own it, I'll take it down and use something else.

Expect another post on pretentiousness. This list is merely items that came to mind this evening.

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