The Pitter-Patter of Language


On Friday evening, when the thunder bumpers were booming outside, I used my computer to check the local radar. My husband looked over my shoulder and asked, “Well?”

“Well, there’s some red stuff just east of the Iowa border, but it will probably pitter before it gets here.”

“Pitter?”

“Yes, pitter. An official meteorological term. I’m surprised you’ve never heard of it.”

“I bet you can’t use it in next week’s Cheese Grits column.”

So there. Three times.

I love words. I love writing sentences and playing with language and words, and I enjoy solving language problems like some people enjoy solving complex equations. As a science writer/editor who works a day job surrounded by eight other science writer/editors, I spend a fair amount of time thinking and talking about language and grammar.

One of my colleagues crafted a piece last week in which she wrote: “I spent my summer dealing with the public and shoveling elephant poop.” That sentence is awesome because she has, by using parallel construction, equated “dealing with the public” with “shoveling elephant poop”—a great way to write between the lines (but admittedly something only a geeky grammarian like me would get).

Recently, we had an author who insisted on using the word “facile” in an article. We would strike it and replace it with “easy”. She would put it back in at the next review. Our first reason for striking “facile” was that it wasn’t necessary. “Easy” communicated exactly what the author wanted to convey and would be a better choice for our international audience.

My second reason was that I wasn’t convinced the author was using the word “facile” in the best way. She was saying the system was “facile” (as in easy-to-use). The first definition in Webster’s for “facile” is “easily accomplished or attained”. If she had written “using the system leads to facile protein isolation” I couldn’t complain about the usage (I could still argue that it is unnecessary use of a big, fancy word).

Additionally, along with that first definition, Webster’s gives the synonyms “specious” or “superficial”, and I was pretty sure that the marketing department would not want those synonyms associated with our product.

As it turns out, the second definition given for “facile” is “used or comprehended with ease”, which means her usage is acceptable, technically, but I still say “facile” isn’t the best choice. Using the word “easy” would result in more facile prose (look it up).

In another instance, a person proofreading a flier asked me, “I really think this should be ‘alternative medicine’, not ‘alternate medicine’. Am I right?”

“Yes,” I replied. “First, “alternative” is the term used by the experts in that field, so we should use that term. Second, “alternate” is a choice between one of two things; “alternative” implies there are many things to choose from, and in this case, there are.”

If I want to torture myself with poor word usage, I tune into The Weather Channel where weather is always “impacting” somebody or some place. While it is true that “impact” can be used as a verb in modern English, when used as a verb it means “to fix firmly by packing or wedging together” or “to strike”. So unless those record high temperatures are going to pack all the people in the East Coast together like sardines in a can or literally strike forcefully each and every person in New York, just say that the record highs will “affect” the area. And, if the tornado is really going to “impact” the town in Iowa, why not say “strike”? It’s a stronger image.

So now back to “pitter” (four times). My husband was right; I misspoke. The words I meant to use were “peter out”: “Well, there’s some red stuff near the Iowa border, but it will probably peter out before it gets here.”

I knew I misspoke as soon as I uttered the words, but sometimes my brain is behind my mouth. However, if President Obama can “tweet” and “twitter”, why can’t I make a thunderstorm “pitter”? (Five times. Hah!)

© 2009 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “The Pitter-Patter of Language

  1. First comes to mind the cute little girl who when spoken to in baby talk by an adult would astonish the speaker by replying in clear, concise and correct english .

    Second find the word perfida as in the song “Profida” not sure of spelling.
    Love,
    Dad

  2. I use pitter all the time with regards to weather. Makes perfect sense to me!

    How about piddle, as in piddle around. Rain does that a lot here, is doing it right now in fact. Just cannot make up its mind if it wants to or not!

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