“Totally.” A lesson in emphasis.

14 November 2011

Herman Cain “totally respects women,” says his wife, Gloria Cain.

Teaching moment! Why we avoid unnecessary emphasis. (Remember the Seinfeld episode about the overuse of exclamation points?)

  1. Is there a human being alive who doesn’t hear the word totally without adding a Valley Girl voice, thereby undermining all its legitimacy as an emphasis? If only she’d added like — as in, “he, like, totally respects women!”
  2. When you’re making an assertion like “he respects women,” there is no emphatic term that can make it more believable. Let’s run through some options: “he really really respects women”; “he absolutely respects women”; “there is no one who respects women more than he;” or for that matter “he respects women!!!!!!!!!!!!” What you need is evidence, not assertions with emphasis.
  3. I personally would feel much better about this statement if I’d grown accustomed to hearing Herman Cain use the word “women” instead of “girls” and “ladies.” And if he hadn’t used that expression about “letting Herman be Herman.”

So whether writing papers or giving press announcements, please: avoid unnecessary emphasis! Back up a statement with evidence rather than empty words.

And (ahem) the word totally totally does not achieve what you think it achieves.



7 Responses to ““Totally.” A lesson in emphasis.”

  1. servetus Says:

    I am totally skeptical that Herman Cain totally respects women.

  2. JE Says:

    I would have been far more likely to believe it if she’d said that he was “literally” respectful of women.

    • Didion Says:

      Oooh! just like the Rob Lowe character on Parks and Recreation, who uses the word “literally” so frequently and with such delightful pronunciation that I laugh at the mere thought of it.

  3. Phylly3 Says:

    Okay, I think I may be guilty of using too much emphasis and modern “catch phrases” or whatever the term is, when blogging. I don’t really talk that way, (except when I’m trying to be funny). The whole raison d’être of my blog is usually an attempt at humour. (Though I’m sure if I am successful).
    I also write my blog in a conversational style, rather than a literary style. I would certainly never write an essay using the same style of language as I speak or blog.
    But that’s just me. I know what you are saying. There are many people (usually young people) who may not realize the difference as they may not have been taught to write in a formal essay style.
    Anyway, good rant Didion. I have words that drive me nuts too. Right now my mind is blank, but I’m sure it will come to me. – Like totally!!

    • Didion Says:

      I go on emphasis-laden rampages all the time! but I also use facts and evidence to back up my assertions. I say do whatever you want on a blog — it’s your blog, after all.

      But if you need to appear in public to make a defense, be warned! Totally warned!

      I must say that totally is just a terrible word. I can’t hear it except ironically now.

  4. Hattie Says:

    I think your blog is awesome. Note that I did not say it’s totally awesome.

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