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Back in harness, with some catching up to do.

I had an exchange with Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe about the words pompous and pretentious, which she holds to be used rather indiscriminately as terms of abuse. Here’s where you can find her column “Pomp and Circumstance”:

She is probably right, but discussing the matter with her compelled me to clarify my own thinking. To be "pompous" is to be self-important in a particular way: expressing possession of superior knowledge or status in a condescending manner. Pomposity in language tends toward inflating diction, flourishing obscure terms, insisting on more formal syntax and vocabulary than the occasion demands.

In journalism, it is typically the source, not the writer, who is pompous. The "intialialese" subheading in the "abbreviations" entry in Garner's Modern American Usage gets at this: Instead of using abbreviations "for the convenience of the reader by shortening names so that cumbersome phrases would not have to be repeated in their entirety," many writers "allow abbreviated terms to proliferate, and their prose quickly becomes a hybrid-English system of hieroglyphs. ... This kind of writing might be thought more scholarly than ordinary, straightforward prose. It isn't. Rather, it's tiresome and inconsiderate writing; it betrays the writer's thoughtlessness toward the reader and a puerile fascination with the insubstantial trappings of scholarship."

A minor example that I gave was the bureaucratic tendency to omit the definite article before the abbreviation for his or her agency — EPA has ruled rather than the EPA has ruled. It strikes me as displaying pomposity for this reason: Using language that is distinct from idiomatic, conversational English sets the speaker apart, and when the distinctive language is abstract and technical (scientific, medical, legal, bureaucratic), its use labels the speaker as a member of an elite. He is on the inside, he knows the lingo, and he condescends to reveal a little of the mystery to the gaping, slack-jawed outsider. It hints at importance greater than yours: I'm a busy man, I am too busy to waste time on definite articles, so I have adopted this clipped speech by which we insiders identify one another.

The reporter drawn into the gravitational pull of the sources argot is likelier to be demonstrating echolalia than pomposity. To merely mimic the language of the source is just lazy or careless.

If you would like a more memorable description of pomposity than anything I can deliver, take this passage from Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution:

“This earth carries aboard it many ordinary passengers; and it carries, also, a few very important ones. It is hard to know which people are, or were, or will be which. Great men may come to the door in carpet-slippers, their faces like kindly or fretful old dogs, and not even know that they are better than you; a friend meets you after fifteen years and the Nobel Prize, and he is sadder and fatter and all the flesh in his face has slumped an inch nearer the grave, but otherwise he is as of old. They are not very important people. On the other hand, the president of your bank, the Vice-Chancellor of the—no, not the Reich, but of the School of Agriculture of the University of Wyoming: these, and many Princes and Powers and Dominions, are very important people; the quality of their voices has changed, and they speak more distinctly from the mounds upon which they stand, making sure that their voices come down to you.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (2)


Welcome back.

The reporter drawn into the gravitational pull of the sources argot is likelier to be demonstrating echolalia than pomposity. To merely mimic the language of the source is just lazy or careless.
Or unavoidable, unless you want to spend all day chasing a Md State Police officer to try and clarify what it was got said in the press release.

At the level of police departments, the Md State Police, state fire marshal, Offices of Emergency Services, and so on, the written reports contain such gnarled syntax that to try and understand what they're reporting (in their written report) is ... well, it's hopeless in many cases.

What's the solution here?

The Baltimore Catechism states, "By the pomps of the devil we mean all worldly pride, vanities and vain shows by which people are enticed into sin, and all foolish or sinful display of ourselves or of what we possess." Pride, vanity, possessions, these are used to try to lay claim to a personal importance we do not deserve. The show is the thing. There is much gravity, expanse, and seriousness.

Pretentious implies an actual lie about one's abilities. The pretentious person pretends to be more important, intelligent, or admirable than she really is. The suspicion is that a pretentious wine snob would not be able to tell Moet from Mogen David without the label. "You think you're so smart" is a common populist rebuttal to a pretentious statement.

Freeman uses the phrase "trying to sound educated." I think that applies much better to pretentious than pompous.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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