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December 16, 2001 - 'Junk English' - 2002-01-30

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER -- we talk about "Junk English."

RS: That's the title of a new book. Author Ken Smith spent six months immersing himself in the language of popular culture. He found a lot of it junk, in other words, worthless. "Junk English," he writes, "is the linguistic equivalent of junk food -- ingest it long enough and your brain goes soft."

AA: Ken Smith says he wrote the book out of anger at what he calls the "debasement" of English by corporations, public relations consultants, politicians and everyday people.


SMITH: "I would talk to friends and they would mention the same things, that they were in a meeting or they heard someone use 'efficacious' instead of 'effective' or 'incentavize' instead of 'encourage' and it would drive them crazy, too."

RS: "So are you talking about sloppy grammar, sloppy, thinking, sloppy pronunciation, sloppy usage?"

SMITH: "It's a little bit of all of them. Some of it's sloppy, obviously, saying 'true facts' instead of just 'facts,' some of it's pretentious -- saying 'documentation' instead of 'paperwork,' or 'specificities' instead of 'specifics' -- and some of it's deliberate, frankly. A sentence like 'This is a car for those who value quality.' That means nothing."

AA: "As opposed to a car for those who don't."

SMITH: "Yeah, right. I mean, a lot of language being used by politicians, the advertising industry, is language designed to sound as if it means something but it really doesn't mean anything."

AA: "Hasn't this always been the case?"

SMITH: "It has, but I think recently it's gotten a lot worse. Certainly the reach of the media that we have today is broader than it ever has been before, and that tends to spread it faster. It sort of increases the viral quality of this bad grammar and bad English. Every executive is a 'visionary' now, every product is 'revolutionary' or 'innovative.' Words like 'shocking' and 'unique' get thrown around all the time, and so the power of those words has been lost."

AA: In his research, Ken Smith came to an unsettling conclusion.


SMITH: "Part of the difficulty in paying attention to this stuff as I did is that you realize you're not supposed to pay attention to this stuff. You're just supposed to sit back and be impressed by them and not really think too much about what is being said."

RS: "What about you, Ken Smith, did you find some of these words creeping into your vocabulary after six months?"

SMITH: "Oh, god yes! I always say that I'm an expert in junk English because I do it myself. In fact, in the introduction to the book I use the phrase 'broad overview' which is a redundancy, and I didn't realize that. I went back and read the book and there it was, sort of leaping out at me. I mean, junk English habits are very difficult to break."

RS: And hard to escape. For instance, a lot of companies use what Ken Smith calls "casual, intimate language" to make business relationships seem something more.


SMITH: "It is trying to present this veneer of family. In fact, there's a section of the book called 'palsy-walsy pitches' ... "

RS: "Palsy-walsy pitches?"

SMITH: " ... which is a sales pitch put in a lexical mantle of friendship, it's like, you know, 'from our family to yours.' It's that kind of talk that's coming out of corporations and advertisers nowadays."

AA: "And you encourage people to send you examples of junk English, is that right, to your Web site?"

SMITH: "Oh yes,"

AA: "What's been the biggest complaint just since your book's come out, that people have been sending in to you?"

SMITH: "Well, a lot of it is just these abomination words like 'concretize' and 'accidenting,' those are two that came into the Web site just the other day. People really pick up on these sort of fake words that people coin."

RS: "So what you're saying is, once we being to recognize that we're speaking or writing in junk English, we can avoid doing that."

SMITH: "Yeah and again I think the book also helps you to laugh at it, and I think once you're able to laugh at junk English, it loses a lot of its power, it's not impressive anymore. You hear it, it's like a bell going off, like, 'oh yeah, he just said "incentavize," oh that's baaad,' whereas before you might not have recognized it."

RS: "I guess my last question is, any advice for students learning English as a foreign language and learning to write?"

SMITH: "Well, read good books and read good newspapers. The best way to learn how to write is to read good writing. Read the New York Times, read Harper's Magazine, read the New Yorker. I mean, these people know the language very well. They make mistakes too, but you can't go wrong by starting out at the top, it's the best way to learn a language.

AA: Ken Smith, author of "Junk English." Now, if we can help you improve your English, write to us!

RS: Send us your questions. Our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Turnstyled, Junkpiled"/Townes Van Zandt