Monday, November 4, 2013

A little "fatal" goes a long way

in case you were curious
According to NPR reporter Greg Allen, dengue fever is “very fatal.” My first reaction to this September report was not to research the disease, but to wonder what it means to be “very fatal.”

“Fatal” means “to cause death.” The last time I checked, humans (unlike cats) have only one life, so we can only die once. Other than dying more than once, what could “very fatal” mean? How is dengue fever different from afflictions that are only plain, ordinary fatal, like a fatal car crash or a fatal heart attack? Once we are dead, we are dead. End of story. 

Reporters seem determined to hype everything, even events that need no hype. “Fatal” is a strong word, and adding “very” diminishes its strength. This addition serves as a reminder that sometimes enough is, well, enough. The modifier simply makes the entire story silly. I was so busy giggling about the unnecessary hyperbole that I failed to pay attention to what could have been a concern for my family. The hype diverted my attention rather than cause the alarm the reporter was trying to convey.

Why do writers of all stripes add ‘very” so often? I suspect this usage goes deep into their writing heritage, back when a teacher assigned a 500-word essay on a topic where they only had 200-words of information. How did they reach the limit? By adding unnecessary words. Instead of fostering economy and precision, these assignments promote bloated, nonsensical prose. If an adjective or adverb isn't strong enough, it's enough for many writers to slap a “very” in front of it and be done with it, instead of diving deeper into their vocabulary well to find a more exact word to express the idea more precisely. 

Writers have a responsibility to their readers to weed out redundancy. Listeners and reader have become almost immune to some of the most egregious examples: free gifts, future plans, unconfirmed rumors, false pretense, dead corpse. Seriously, who pays for a gift? Aren't all plans in the future? Aren't rumors by definition unconfirmed? If it's a pretense, can it be true? A corpse is a dead body, so is a dead corpse a dead, dead body? Maybe that's what Allen was trying to say about dengue fever, but I doubt it. He was probably against a deadline and needed a longer sound bite. I'd rather listen to dead air myself. Wouldn’t you?