David Foster Wallace: Avoid Noxious Puff-Words

huyI confess that I dream of having the kind of following that if I said, “Read David Foster Wallace or you’re dead to me!” there would be a subtle, but statistically significant, uptick in sales of Infinite Jest the following week. Sadly, I do not have that kind of following, and cannot afford to tell readers they’re “dead to me” in any event.

But that won’t prevent me from quoting one of his “Twenty-Four Word Notes” from another favorite, Both Flesh And Not. Specifically, discussing the term utilize, he writes:

Utilize  A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. The same is true for the noun utilization, for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for house, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: ‘formal writing’ does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.” (p.261)

While not targeted toward an audience of lawyers, this is excellent advice to any writer, including lawyers. Avoid puff-words. They’re just noxious.

And no, the irony is not lost on me that this writer, who here urges “maximally considerate writing,” foisted upon us, his readers, arguably the most frustrating, wonderful, puzzling, brilliant, maddening and challenging novel since Joyce penned Ulysses. Infinite Jest spans 1,079 pages and includes 388 separately numbered endnotes (some of which have footnotes of their own). Nope, I love irony.

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

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