Style Matters #50: When terrific superlatives lead writers astray

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You know them. They’re everywhere. They’re the bigger-than-life adjectives we use in everyday language, often to emphasise the magnitude of our reactions to things.

But many of them are not quite what they seem. They’re not only over-used but also often imprecise. They are the adjectives we throw around all-too-commonly in spoken language. Trouble is, they migrate into the written word all too often.

They’re the superlatives, words such as: absolutely, fantastic, incredible, unbelievable, awesome, fabulous, bumper, marvellous, wonderful, sensational, splendid, superb, excellent, and terrific.

Some have been elevated by our advertising and marketing friends. Most are simply overused. But have you ever investigated the true or alternative meanings of some of them?

The jury is out on awesome, which means causing awe or terror and extremely daunting but it also means inspiring wonder or excitement. (Perhaps you can understand why people learning to speak English get so confused when the one word can have opposite meanings.)

Then there’s fantastic, which means remote from reality or, at a pinch, of extraordinary size or degree.

And fabulous, while commonly used to mean extraordinary or extraordinarily large, properly means having no basis in reality or mythical.

Then there’s incredible, which means impossible to be believed (as does unbelievable).

When something is sensational, it is causing very great excitement or interest with shocking details.

The one we should all watch out for, though, is terrific, which means very bad or frightful.

So next time you find yourself reaching for one of these superlatives, unless you’re trying to be sarcastic, be careful you’re not wielding an insult.

Pause for a moment and check the word’s meaning.  But, better still, consider whether another less fabulous word might more accurately fit the occasion.

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If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters or connect via Facebook by liking the reporting4work Facebook Page 

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