Call me schoolmarm, call me bluestocking, call me dinosaur if you like. You can certainly call me a grammar fascist: I know what kind of written English I like, and by golly, I demand it. People who think about these things draw a distinction between prescriptive usage and descriptive usage, and I definitely place myself on the prescriptive end of this scale. But as an editor and sometime teacher, I daily find myself striking out the same words over and over, which makes me feel like I am on the wrong side of a linguistic sea change. Lately I’ve been wondering whether I should just let the tides of grammar and usage wash me away, but then I bump into an “alright,” and I just grit my teeth and dig in harder.
I was recently asked by my students at the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College for a list of words to avoid in their writing for me. This was prompted by marginal notes such as this one: “ ‘Unique’ hardly ever really happens. It means one-of-a-kind, singular. Nothing else like it. The overuse of ‘unique’ is a blight in children's literary criticism.” I reeled off a string of words to avoid.
There’s “simplistic” when you really mean “simple”; “simplistic” is a pejorative, and usually I find it incorrectly applied to works that are being praised for their thoughtful, intentional simplicity—works that are far from simplistic or dumbed down. And then there’s “impact” when used as a verb, along with its truly hideous cousin, “impactful.” There are perfectly good words that already do the job of those two misbegotten terms. What’s wrong with “affect” and “influence”? “Arresting” and “striking”? I’m not sure I’m ready to carry the banner against “fun” as an adjective, but for at least one of my reviewers, it’s nails on a chalkboard, and out of respect for her, a lot of “fun”s turn to “amusing”s or “entertaining”s.
But the word that I hate the most, the word that I wish had never made it into the language is “relatable.” Grammatically parsed, it means “tellable,” as in a story or account that is easily related or communicated. These days, though, it’s used to describe a character or situation that is easy to relate to: “relate-to-able,” if you will. It’s nails on my chalkboard.
Over and above the problematic grammar, however, is the assumption it conveys. It says that readers will find echoes of personal similarity in those characters or situations, but I think that all too often it says more about what the writer finds easy to relate to than what putative readers will. The excitement of swooshing downhill on a toboggan is easy for a New Englander to relate to, but what about an Angeleno? The warmth of an older sibling’s regard is one that’s familiar to many, many readers, but what about an only child? And the particular sadness that comes when visiting your parent in prison is hardly ever described as “relatable” or even “familiar,” but it is all too much so for many, many children.
So even if I someday cave in to the descriptive-usage reality of a misused “unique,” “simplistic,” or even (ugh) “impactful,” “relatable” is one word you’ll never find in any piece of writing I have responsibility for—unless it’s describing a particularly easily told tale.—V.S.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.