If you can’t use words properly, you shouldn’t write books

Last week I checked the book Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism out of the library and started reading. On page 15, after reading about Henry Ford’s failed attempt to start a rubber plantation in South America to provide his cars with tires, I read this paragraph:

As a parable of empire, Fordlandia captures well the experience of the United States in Latin America. The quixotic faith that led Ford to try to remake the Amazon in an American image – a truly utopian endeavor considering that he never set foot in Brazil – reflects a broader belief that the United States offers a universal, and universally acknowledged, model for the rest of humanity. In turn, Ford Motor Company’s subsequent support of death-squad regimes demonstrates how that kind of evangelicalism easily gives way to brute coercion.

The book went back to the library immediately. Why? Because Greg Grandin, the author, used the word “evangelicalism” in what I thought was an inappropriate way. I’ve studied Christian history, and I know that Evangelicalism is a movement within the Christian church. And while many people may not work with a very precise definition (see here for a very good attempt at defining it), I think that Grandin creates confusion by using the word the way that he does. There was nothing specifically Christian about what Ford was doing. My guess is that Grandin intended to convey the idea that Ford was zealous in advocating the greatness of the United States. If that was his intent, I would suggest he use a broader term that doesn’t have such specific connotations.

I read a lot, and I read a lot of stuff that I don’t necessarily agree with. I even read a lot of stuff that is explicitly critical of groups with which I identify. But if I can’t trust an author to use words with care, I don’t read the book. Even if I disagree violently with what an author is saying, I have to trust him or her to use words coherently and with care. If that trust is broken, I will move on to an author who does use words carefully.

Can you tell this is a major pet peeve? Does anybody else feel as strongly about this as I do?

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One thought on “If you can’t use words properly, you shouldn’t write books

  1. Elliot's Mom February 22, 2010 / 10:22 pm

    Grandin’s use of “parable,” quixotic,” and utopian” are also a little peculiar. Inaccurate word use, and also inaccurate pronunciation, drive me crazy as well. I’m about to write an email to TV’s Craig Ferguson about the stupidity of using bad words in sentence locations that make no sense. They aren’t accurate modifiers and often aren’t even in adjective or adverb forms. I love his humour and his shows, but if they didn’t bleep him, I couldn’t stand the show.

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