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Zak of All Trades: Some freedom of speech faux pas

October 4, 2013

I edit pieces of writing for a living. Freedom of speech is something that's important to me — something that's very misunderstood, but something that's important to me nonetheless.

Lately, I've been doing a bit of writing outside of work — something I hadn't been driven to do much since I started as the sports writer here at The Spirit — and I've developed a few chapters for what I think might be my next book.

I love to write, and I love the way things just pour out on to the page when you start typing, but I've also noticed something else lately: People abuse the right and the privilege to say whatever they want.

One thing that's made freedom of speech more interesting is the early evolution of the digital era and social media. I think we are in the beginnings of this phase, and it might just be the one that proves the animals are above us on the intellectual spectrum.

Social media sites make it easy for anyone — at any time, without any warning — to post anything they want about anything they want, and it rarely, if ever, holds them accountable for their words.

I know all about abusing the right to say whatever we want to say — just this week, I ate my words twice and had to call someone back and apologize for the words I'd used. It wasn't easy, but I had realized that I was out of line in exercising my freedom of speech.

I'm not the only one, though, and it seems like some folks are going for faux pas of the century every time they open their mouths — or sign into their Facebook accounts.

Faux pas — that's an interesting phrase, isn't it?

As a young lad — and by young, I mean this was true up until about a year-and-a-half ago, but I'm ashamed to admit it — I thought faux pas was pronounced something like "fox paws." Maybe, I thought, the typist had been having a rough day at the keyboard and just gave up?

More recently, though, when I became a "writer," I had to start looking up how to spell words and phrases akin to this one, and so came my education in the spelling of fox paws.

My trusty friend dictionary.com tells me that faux pas is defined as "a slip or blunder in etiquette, manners or conduct; an embarrassing social blunder or indiscretion."

It is derived from the French language in the 1600s, literally meaning "false step." And, it's synonyms are error or impropriety.

Misuse or abuse of the English language, as far as I can tell, falls under the category of being a slip or blunder in etiquette, manners or conduct, and while the lack of discretion seen and heard in "freedom of speech" expressions seems to be lacking a filter, I feel like many should be embarrassed at their blunders.

Therefore, I have compiled a list of five freedom of speech faux
pases for your reading enjoyment and pleasure.

1. You can't just add an -s or an -es to any word to make it plural...
Here's something I learned recently (as in, seven minutes ago, when I looked up the plural for the "word" faux pas...) Sometimes, the plural is the same as the original.

You'll note that above, I spelled faux pas' plural with an -es attached. That's because that's how I spelled it when I Googled it. I was wrong. So, shame on me for faux pas-ing.

But the truth is, lots of people do this with lots of words. While I still understand what you're saying, more than likely, it's a faux pas nonetheless.

2. Before you use the word "literally" in a sentence, you should look it up in a dictionary...

My friend dictionary.com — we've been hanging out a lot
lately — defines literally as "actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy."

By it's very definition, I feel as if it is ashamed of the way we toss it around to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means.

I hear it all the time: "I literally spent 141 hours doing homework
last night; That guy is huge. He's literally 12 feet tall; There were, like, 1,000 deer in the back yard, literally."

First of all, if you say "like," it can't be literal, because an approximation can't be without inaccuracy, but the even more troubling thing with the use of the word literally is that it often is used in cases when its counterpart — figuratively — would be absolutely appropriate.

So troubling is the trend, that my pal — you guessed it, the website — has a usage note as follows: "Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning 'in effect, virtually,' a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning 'actually, without exaggeration': The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing."

At least, if you're one who abuses the definition of the word, you're not alone.

3. Overuse of the Caps Lock key — STOP IT!!!

This isn't so much a faux pas as a pet peeve. But seriously, please stop using the CAPS LOCK language to communicate with us. Also, underlines and italics in emails and typed notes are annoying. Thanks, in advance, for refraining.

4. Contrary to popular belief, there is such thing as a stupid question...

I know that at some point in your education, one of your teachers probably said it to you when you were hesitant to speak up about a concept you didn't understand: "It's OK, Little Johnny ... You can ask whatever you want. There is no such thing as a stupid question."

False. There is such thing as a stupid question.

First of all, asking me the same question three times and expecting a different answer is a stupid question times two — both the second and third times you asked.

Also, a question that you already know the answer to but are
asking anyhow to show me "how intelligent" you really are, is a
stupid question.

When you're trying to learn something, I'll never fault you for trying, and sometimes stupid questions are necessary — we all have lapses or "brain farts" — but just because a question needs to be asked doesn't mean it's not a stupid one.

5. Just because you have something to say, doesn't mean it's worth sharing...

In all honesty, this is the point that motivated me to write this column. If there's one thing that frosts me more than anything, it's someone using their words to cause harm when and where it's not appropriate.

Don't use your freedom of speech to take your bad day or your bad week or your bad month out on others around you.

Don't post something on Facebook just because you thought it.

Some people deserve or need harsh words — I get that — but make sure they're well-thought-out before you throw them out. They have consequences.

Now, if there were a number 6, it would be to make sure that you don't tell your readers what to do for 1300 words.

So, thanks for staying with me, and remember, most of the stuff I write is the stuff I need to hear most. So, if you need to, we can work on these ones together.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit and now knows how to properly pluralize FAUX PAS... literally.

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