I saw a newspaper ad last week that really toasted my cheese – and then when I sat down and thought about it, I decided that my cheese could stand a tad less toasting, and I dialed it back.  Let me explain.

The ad was for the NBC network’s new lineup of situation comedies airing on Wednesday nights, and the headline proclaimed, without the slightest sense of shame… here, I’ll put it in big bold letters for you… WE COMEDY WEDNESDAY.

We comedy Wednesday? Really? We comedy Wednesday! Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: since when is comedy a verb? I comedy, you comedy, he/she/it comedies? Will you be comedying later? I could have comedied all night and still come back for more? It’s absurd on the face of it, right? No wonder it raised my righteous ire. It’s a crime against syntax, that’s what it is, and I am the self-proclaimed sheriff of syntax, right?

Uh… hang on there, John. Wait, not so fast. Have you or have you not in recent weeks invented these words –

  • HOLDMITITE: The key ingredient in a hug.
  • PAULSHEIMER’S: Inability to remember the name of that band before Wings.
  • REFILLIBUSTER: To stall taking your turn to buy the next round.

 – and, in fact, many, many more?

Well, yeah, sure I have, but that’s different. I kind of make up words for a living. Well, for a Twitter feed. People expect it of me. I’m whimsical. I have the right. But “We comedy Wednesday?” Those guys don’t.

Well, why not? Because they’re not you?

Yes, exactly.

Well, at this point I realized that my inner dialogue was getting a little heated, and that’s when I reoriented myself and viewed the situation objectively. The truth is, I am kind of a grammar nit. When I see an apostrophe catastrophe (like “punks not dead” – grr!) I feel morally bound to correct it, or at least mock it. But the other truth is that I do reinvent the language every day, and I do it will full madness of forethought. (See? See what I did? I just did it there.) So in all fairness – and I’m all about fairness when I’m not all about correcting apostrophe catastrophe’s – I have to concede that if it’s okay for me to make up words and manipulate the language and invent new phrases like madness of forethought, then by golly it should be okay for the bright boys and girls of the NBC marketing department.

I just hope they know what they’re doing.

Because once you start down this slippery slope, the slope, uh, gets slipperier. Just last week an editor asked me to take something I’d written and concise it by twenty percent. Did he not know he meant condense? And if he can concise an article, why can’t he oven his food, notebook his thoughts or phallus his partner?

No reason. No reason in the world. And that’s what I mean by a slippery slope.

Still, when I stopped being righteously irate at the NBC marketing department, I realized that they had actually done me a huge favor. They pointed out to me where my own linguistic orthodoxy begins and my tolerance ends. Since I am generally intolerant of intolerance (as I am opposed to value judgments because value judgments are bad) I decided that I just needed to relaxify myself and open my mind to the post-modern (in fact post-everything because I just named it) concept of verbing the nouns. If I can get my spellchecker to see things the same way, then all will be right with the world.

For the sake of lending the credibility of research to this article (and/or wasting another 47 seconds of my life) I just now asked my spellchecker how it felt about relaxify (which it hates, and underlines in angry red squiggles). Then I noticed that, for reasons unknown, my spellchecker is currently set to British English, and is fiercely endeavoring, even as we speak, to change endeavoring to endeavouring – plus pretense to pretence, organize to organise, and even, if I would let it, stroller to pram. This just goes to show that everything we consider to be orthodox about language is nothing more than consensus reality.

What does this mean to you as a writer? Same thing it means to me. Lighten up! Yes, it’s great to be grammatically and syntactically correct – you don’t want to look like a bozo and not know it. But you’re a writer. You have command of the language, and you also have responsibility for it. Now part of that responsibility is to defend it, but part, also, is to extend it. And not for nothing, but this is how we avoid cliche in writing; so much of what we want to say has already been said, it’s incumbent upon us to give it a new spin, even if that require new words. So give it a go. Step outside your comfort zone. Try verbing some nouns. Or nouning some verbs. Dare to on occasion split an infinitive. Sentence fragment. At least make up some new words. I do it every day, and it’s great good fun.

Is someone bugging you at work, flaunting his authority hard-on? Well, that’s a harasshole, and he deserves to be labeled as such.

Is a situation comic and tragic at the same time? Sounds to me like it’s sadlarious.

Can’t think of a word to describe cocktail party food? Try drinketizers and see how that goes.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. And you access the possibilities through the simple act of getting down off your linguistic high horse (one of the highest horses there is) and setting yourself loose in the fields of play.

We writers are concerned with our voice, as we should be. Our voice, the sum of our style, storytelling choices, character development, theme and perspective, is the thing that defines us as writers, makes us stand out in the crowded world of the written word. But I ask you: why shouldn’t your voice include, also, your creative approach to the language? That’s how the language grows, you know, and making that happen is as much your job as it is anyone’s.

Or let’s put it this way: If you don’t do it, the NBC marketing department will, and there’s no telling where that will lead.


About John Vorhaus

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!