Below the Beltway / Entertainment

Prose and cons. Good news: More people are writing. Bad news: More people are writing.

WASHINGTON -- Skeptics contend that bad writing is on the rise. The argument is hard to deny, for the simple reason that in the age of the Internet, everyones a writer. It used to be that to get published, a writer needed a publisher, and publishers were picky about whom they spent money on. Now everyone is self-published, and it turns out we are somewhat less demanding of ourselves than, say, Simon & Schuster would be.

The difference between the skeptics and me, though, is that I accept and celebrate this development. I refuse to define the new writing norm as bad. It is simply different. Rather than deride it, I have decided to analyze it, using the very instrument that created the New Norm: the Internet, with its vast powers to search and quantify. Here are just a few of the new laws of writing that I have discovered.

(1) The Law of Conservation of Adjectives. In the old days, writers needed to burden themselves with an arsenal of modifiers adjectives that deliver subtly different connotation and emphasis. No more. Today, one only needs the adverb really, and the degree of emphasis is indicated by how many times it is used. Really, really happy would formerly have been elated. Really, really, really, really happy would formerly have been orgasmic. The really phenomenon is so strong that its limits cannot be plumbed even by the mighty Google search engine, which restricts inquiries to no more than 32 words. I can, however, report that people have used at least 32 reallys very often. How often? Really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really often. Thirty-two reallys, in quotes, returns more than 3 million hits. Here, some of the words following 32 or more reallys: like girls, hot guy, old, cool and want this (its a shirt). A quick anecdotal sampling suggests the most common word following 32 reallys is bored.

(2) The Law of the Ascendancy of Cliche. In the old days, writers avoided cliches like the plague (joke). Instead, writers would waste enormous amounts of time trying to say things in new and different ways. And why? To assault readers with complicated new thoughts and phrases that they must puzzle out. No more. Today, the cliché has been embraced like an old friend. I tried to string together clichés in such a way that no one has ever used them all in one place. It was impossible. Every search got at least one hit. Five different documents, for example, contained all of the following: breathed a sigh of relief, emotional roller coaster, woefully inadequate and reached out to. When I added to this search a major step in the right direction, two documents still remained.

(3) The Third Law of Chaos. There was a time when writers took unattractively egotistical pride in their ability to formulate words by arranging letters in a way that happened to agree with the tyrannical dictates of the dictionary. Now, thankfully, spelling is less hidebound. It is nearly impossible, for example, to find a spelling of definitely that has not been successfully, triumphantly published. As to be expected, we find 62 million definatelys. But we also find multiple definitallys, defanatlys, definatallys, definitlys, defonatelys, definutelys, deffinatelys, defeanitelys, difintetlys, definallys and defanallys. Deffanatly alone has almost 200,000 hits.

(3a) The Banishment of Shame. Corollary to the Third Law of Chaos.

I have found thousands of the following iterations: ignerence, iggnorance, ignerance, ignerrence, iliteracy, illitteracy, illitericy, mispell, misspel, intellagance, inteligence, inteligance, intellagence and brianpower.

My work here is just beginning. I hope to share more of the new laws of writing. I am really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really excited about this project.

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Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com.

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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