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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction



Junk English

by
Ken Smith


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Junk English



Title: Junk English
Author: Ken Smith
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 142 pages
Availability: Junk English - US
Junk English - UK

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Our Assessment:

B : disturbing collection of the rampant misuse and abuse of the English language

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post A+ 29/11/2001 Jonathan Yardley

  From the Reviews:
  • "The author of several books whose titles (...) fail to suggest the passion for good English that animates this lively, funny and impeccably right-minded little volume (.....) Smith is, of course, preaching to the choir (...) but it is an instructive and entertaining homily all the same. (...) Junk English is terrific." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ken Smith has collected a large number of examples showing the degradation of the English language in his entertaining (and often disheartening) book, Junk English .
       Smith begins the book:

Junk English takes many forms. It is the salesperson who describes a product as high quality and a real value, the coworker who writes of the positive side of the consumer equation, (...) your best friend who says Let's do lunch !
       Giving a good idea of what he means. It seems. But, on second thought: "Junk English takes many forms" ... ? Possibly -- but surely the form is the description of the product (and not the describing salesperson), the writing (and not the coworker), the lunch-invitation (and not the best friend), etc.
       An odd start for an admonishing book like this, and not a good sign. "Junk English is much more than sloppy grammar", Smith goes on to write, and even if his use of the language isn't always exemplary he does show that others do far worse things.
       The book is arranged alphabetically, a "catalog of observations". Each outrage is assigned a name and some examples are given, along with Smith's sharp commentary. He makes us aware of everything from Distraction modifiers (words such as low "placed, for example before an unappealing number", such as: "Save with a low 12.9% fixed rate") to the emptiness of Full range ("to call a range full (...) is to make a great show but say nothing"). He finds a wealth of Parasitic intensifiers, attacks Team Sports Technology and Tech Talk, and points out the abuse of many specific words.
       It is a judgmental book, as Smith acknowledges. He has no qualms about presenting his opinions, and he doesn't often miss the mark:
System. Any product described as a system that is not composed of ducts, pipes, or electrical components -- e.g. hair-growth system, bust-development system, weight-loss system, stock-investing system, e-mail-marketing system -- is a fraud.
       Smith's examples are all "taken from life" -- the media, ads, etc. Much of it is familiar -- not the specific examples he gives, but the abuses. Advertisers and politicians -- people that avoid presenting truth at whatever cost -- provide many of the examples, but junk English has also spread far beyond their purview.
       Language is always changing, and people constantly find new ways of expressing themselves. As Smith shows, novelty is not always enriching. What marketeers, politicians, and other language-warpers do is debase the language, making it less useful, rather than more so. They forsake clarity for wilful obscurity. It is a troubling situation.
       Still, Smith believes:
Junk English is not inevitable. We made it. We can make it go away.
       Yet many of Smith's examples show that junk English is inevitable. It is used to be evasive, to obfuscate, to fudge, to confuse -- and while people sometimes voice disappointment and concern about this, they don't really care (and they certainly don't take action). The main purveyors of junk English are marketeers (advertisers pitching the glorious goods and services of capitalism) and politicians. In the United States consumer protection laws only prohibit the most egregious false claims from being made, while allowing all sorts of vacuous and misleading claims (often in choice junk English). Instead of being insulted, consumers are enthralled and eagerly buy the products they are told to. Politicians are occasionally held to account for their junk English-filled speeches and promises, but generally only on little-read Op-Ed pages and in small-circulation political journals. Only in the rarest cases will citizens hold an incumbent politician liable for false promises and empty but junk English-enriched rhetoric (i.e. by voting the politician out of office).
       Indeed, what hope can there be for a return to the proper use of the English language in America when the man elected to lead the nation, George Bush Jr., seems incapable of spouting anything other than junk English ? (Actually, President Bush Jr.'s problems go beyond junk English: his command of the language is, per se, shockingly poor. But perhaps he could help with the solution, setting an example for the country: Condoleezza Rice gives him remedial foreign policy lessons, so why doesn't he also take remedial English classes -- maybe (for a good photo op) at some junior high school in downtown D.C. ?)
       Like junk food, junk English remains unaccountably popular. There is an economic explanation for the popularity of junk food: it is cheaper than real food. But junk English ? It is no cheaper than real English -- and arguably (since it does not convey information anywhere near as accurately) it is far more expensive. (Certainly for society as a whole -- but admittedly not for the main purveyors of junk English -- politicians and marketeers -- who will profit more if consumers and voters understand less.)
       One reason junk English is so widespread is that huge amounts of money are spent on it, mainly through advertising -- source of the purest form of junk English. One of the reasons it is prevalent in advertising is, sadly, because it works. Consumers are more impressed by a weight-loss-system than snake oil, even if the product is obviously the same. Consumers like to be told they are getting a reassuringly "low" rate, even (or perhaps: especially) if the quoted rate is actually exorbitant.
       Smith thinks we can make junk English go away. With a concerted effort we might be able to -- but don't hold your breath. Instead of wondering what the hell it means when a soda-pop manufacturer claims that their product is the "real thing" (to take one example) most consumers just happily consume more of the stuff. Until they stop, the tidal wave of junk English engulfing us won't be stemmed.

       Smith's book is a useful eye-opener, and one hopes it will spur readers to pay more attention to how they use language. But, with junk all around us, it is a damned difficult thing.
       In the introduction (A Message from Ken) Smith writes: "Junk English is the linguistic equivalent of junk food -- ingest it long enough and your brain goes soft." A variation of the sentence is also printed on the back cover (substituting "like" for "the linguistic equivalent of"), set apart in an eye-catching print. It is a catchy sentence -- but isn't it also an example linguistic abuses similar to those Smith is addressing ?
       For one, there's that edited version on the back cover. Yes, writing "like" instead of "the linguistic equivalent of" makes it simpler to remember -- but it isn't what the author wrote. The meanings of the two sentences -- the one found in the text, the other on the cover -- are similar, but they are not the same. The version on the back cover is meant to catch the eye of prospective buyers. The publisher apparently has so little faith in them that he decided to provide a dumbed-down version of Smith's original sentence. This refusal to treat the reader (or, more generally, anyone to whom language is addressed) as a person able to comprehend what one is trying to express without dumbing it down (or dressing it up) is one of the things Smith repeatedly rails against in his book. So it is bad form for his publisher to do just that with Smith's own words.
       But there are also arguments for the publisher's editorial interference. "Like" might be the better word-choice, because junk English is patently not the linguistic equivalent of junk food. Linguistic refers to language in general, while the only people who are affected by junk English are English-speakers (whereas anyone who eats is affected by junk food). Non-English speakers (the vast majority of the world's population) are unlikely to suffer the same harm as English-speakers if forced to ingest large doses of junk English over extended periods of time. One could even argue that junk English might be good for them: surely some exposure to English, even in its most warped form, is better than no exposure at all.
       There are other hairs one could split. Is ingest the appropriate word ? (Are you ingesting what you are reading here ? Of course not.) And the determination that "your brain goes soft" ... okay, he doesn't mean it literally (god forbid anyone would use words literally any longer), but even in the way intended it is a poor choice. (The comparison he is presumably trying to make is based on the belief that ingesting junk food has a physical effect: leaving you soft in the middle, i.e. flabby, i.e. fat. The physical change caused by "ingesting" junk English will, however, not have such a visible effect on the brain -- being "soft in the brain" is of a different nature than being soft in the middle. It is your brain function that will become "soft" (whatever that might mean); your brain itself will not get all mushy (or distended). While ingesting junk food likely also has an effect on your digestive function (which would be the equivalent of what Smith means), the image suggested in the sentence (by "soft") leads in a different direction.)
       The sentence is not a stand-out example of junk English or poor writing, but it does qualify on both counts. It strains for effect over meaning -- exactly what Smith (correctly) accuses the advertisers, politicians, and other junkers of the English language of doing. Which is unfortunate.

       (Note: We at the complete review are well aware that we also use far too much junk English, and that most of our reviews (including this one) could yield a trove of prime examples of all that Smith is fighting against. It is not something we are proud of. Junk English is an insidious evil, and one should try (we almost wrote: make an effort) to limit it wherever possible. But it is not always easy to do so.)

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Links:

Junk English: Reviews:

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About the Author:

       Ken Smith is an American author.

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© 2001-2009 the complete review

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