Tuesday, May 6, 2008

We Are Not Enthused

This post was inspired by a woman who writes for one of the publications I copy edit. She’s a good writer. I like her writing. So it is with some hesitation that confess that I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until her eyebrows are on the back of her head.

You see, right in the middle of a perfectly good article, she inserted something like this:

“It’s a great place to visit,” Jones enthused.

She does this a lot. So my gag reflex was toned enough to be under control. But then, a few paragraphs later, she wrote something like:

“The clams casino are wonderful,” Wilson enthused.
That’s right, both Jones and Wilson are caught in the act of “enthusing” – in the same article even.

So, with this added strain on my gag reflex, you’ll see it was a miracle that I didn’t blow chunks when, two paragraphs later, I came across something like:

“We love the beach here,” Thompson enthused.
There are really three issues here:
1. whether “enthuse” can be used as a verb
2. whether it can be used as a verb in the way our writer friend used it
3. whether any jury in the country will prosecute me when the learn the circumstances contributing to my inevitable crime

The cut-to-the-chase answers:
1. Yes
2. No
3. No

The editorialized answers:

1. “Can” and “should” are two different things. Just because you can eat earthworms doesn’t mean you should. And since the verb “enthused” is even more nauseating than earthworms a l’orange, I suggest you avoid it entirely.
2. See below.
3. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m no hero. I only did what any of you would have done in my shoes. But I do gratefully accept this plaque and your heartfelt applause.

The American Heritage Dictionary reluctantly* defines the verb enthuse as follows. As an intransitive verb, it means “to show or express enthusiasm.” An example from dictionary.com: “All the neighbors enthused over the new baby.” As a transitive verb, it means “to cause to become enthusiastic.” Think “His praise really enthused me,” or, in passive construction, “I was really enthused by his praise."

Note that the definition “to express enthusiasm” is not for transitive use. You can enthuse, you can enthuse over something, but you cannot enthuse something.

Compare this to “say,” whose transitive form allows you to give the verb an object like “it” in: “Jones said it.” Jones can enthuse, but he can’t enthuse it.

I suppose that, if I weren’t quite so disgusted, I would allow that quotation attributions don’t necessarily need to be transitive verbs. “‘Earthworms are overpriced,’ Jones fumed.” But that would be stretching it, to say the least. The truth is that attributed quotations are usually presumed to be simple subject-verb-object constructions, even if inverted.

John said, “hi.”
“Hi,” John said.

The bottom line: No matter how you spew it, “enthuse” is just plain icky. But don't take my word for it:
* The verb enthuse is not well accepted. Its use in the sentence ‘The majority
leader enthused over his party's gains’ was rejected by 76 percent of the Usage
Panel in the late 1960s, and its status remains unfavorable: the same sentence
was rejected by 65 percent of the Usage Panel in 1997. This lack of enthusiasm
for enthuse is often attributed to its status as a back-formation; such words
often meet with disapproval on their first appearance and only gradually become
accepted over time. – American Heritage Dictionary

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