Fifty Shades of Great

Yes, I did it. I made reference to the hugely successful trilogy written by E. L. James currently conquering the world.  But it’s not really what I’m addressing.  I’m addressing the superlative in English.  By now we know that there are many ways to say things.  I emphasize this to students, as I dissuade them from panicking when they forget a word.  I often reference the “basket of words,” we have in English to describe things. It’s a pretty rich language in that respect. Difficult? Yes. Replete with exceptions? Yes. But also rich.

 One student of mine would often use the word amazing when describing any number of things, ranging from a song or piece of music to how she feels when she has a novel idea.  Together we worked on alternatives to amazing. There’s nothing wrong with using that word, but I just wanted her to have some variety in expressing herself.  Non native English speakers often feel as if when they speak in English, they lose part of their personality, their style,  or their tone, and what’s left may be understandable English, but a part of them is missing from the communication.  Another example was when she acquired the word vast, which has a much richer and descriptive connotation than big, when describing the volume of something very far reaching.

 We’re not aiming here to transform these people into highfalutin, over sophisticated speakers who sound affected.  Actually, over-stuffing your speech with over-the-top vocabulary can work to your detriment.  Psychology professor Daniel Oppenheimer, in his study “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long words Needlessly,” indicates that clear, simple, and straightforward language is often the best.  So why am I promoting the use of words beyond amazing and big? It’s not to make you sound smarter.  Although, I know that many non native English speakers complain that they feel like they sound dumb when speaking in English, while in their native language they feel like they sound intelligent.  My purpose here is to help people to be more descriptive.

 When I helped prepare with an actress for interviews and press conferences in English about a Hebrew film in which she plays the lead role, I wanted her to be able to explain what makes the film so great.  Incidentally, what we decided upon was not to express how great the film was, but that it was groundbreaking.  This was a much clearer indication of the fact that the film was the first of its kind in Israel.  It was distinctly different from the films preceding it.  I don’t consider groundbreaking all that fancy of a word.  I do consider it descriptive.  So why all this word play and analysis? I see it as all being connected to better communication.  Being clearer helps us to more effectively transmit our message and connect to people, even across vast distances.

 I’m not the only one who thinks about variety.  Paul Simon does, too, in his famous 1975 hit, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. There are so many ways to say things. Enjoy them.

 This is also true for native English speakers. How often do you use the word amazing? Is it indeed what you mean?  And then there’s great, which is also fine to use.  I have nothing against these words. However, exploring the possibilities of how to best to express yourself gives you so many more options.  When we describe something, there’s always that gray area. It’s up to us to provide the vivid description and bring some color into it.

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