The other day I was in the car when a radio ad came on saying how government can “garnish your wages.” I immediately did a double-take and wondered how one’s salary might be adorned with a side helping of parsley, broccoli or hot spice. But lo and behold when I checked the dictionary for ‘garnish’ there it was …
- To add decorative or savory touches to food or drink.
- To equip with accessories.
I was beside myself because I had never heard ‘garnish’ used that way before. But then I reasoned other people (i.e. listeners to the ad) must be in the same boat.
A long-time pet peeve of mine is how language skills are in decline. I am reminded of this every day and it goes beyond a young person offering support to a friend by texting ‘I am 4 u.’
When I taught journalism and communications I would take the morning newspaper and look for a story that was badly written, throw it out to the class and see how they improve it. A common ailment was a long, meandering sentence with eight or nine pronouns that lost the reader on the way, or a noun following a lengthy string of adjectives.
While it’s true some journalists put too many pronouns into a sentence, lawyers are famous for overloading adjectives and clauses. Here is an example I use in seminars:
‘If the company revises this policy form with respect to policy revisions, endorsements or rules by which the insurance hereunder could be extended or broadened without additional premium charge, such insurance as is afforded hereunder shall be so extended or broadened effective immediately upon approval or acceptance of such revision during the policy by the appropriate insurance supervisory authority.’
That’s a 59-word sentence from the legal department which only a fool would sign because who the heck knows what it means? Well, this is what it means:
‘We will automatically give you the benefits of any extension of this policy if the change doesn’t require additional cost.’
Suddenly you have 20 words and it communicates. When you get down to it, clear writing is the difference between Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Ernest Hemingway. For the record here are some things that drive me nuts …
- Alright for All right.
- Protest against such-and-such. (Can anyone protest for something?)
- Accept for except, and vice versa.
- It’s used in the possessive when it’s actually a contraction.
You don’t know about possessives or contractions? That’s a topic for another time.